While surveying a cave known as Errotalde I, near the town of Erro in the province of Navarra in northern Spain, a group of spelunkers discovered something most unexpected. After following multiple twists and turns down darkened cramped corridors and passageways, they stumbled across a fully intact human skeleton . The Navarra cave body had been placed carefully and deliberately on its back next to a narrow underground stream, with its arms folded tightly across its abdomen.
The skeleton was found 200 meters from the mouth of the cave, meaning those who had placed it there had exerted a great amount of effort in carrying the body to this spot. Ominously, there was a round hole in the middle of the skeleton’s skull, suggesting that this individual had been violently and abruptly killed by a high-speed projectile or rounded sharp object thrust into his head.
The Navarra Cave Skeleton Was Carefully Placed
While its somewhat decayed appearance implied significant age, the skeleton was missing none of its bones, and it gave all the appearance of having been placed there intentionally and referentially by individuals unknown, at a date impossible to determine. In fact, his precise positioning and well-preserved state were consistent with his body having been wrapped in some kind of protective shroud, which could have simply disintegrated with the passage of time.
After exiting the cave, the spelunkers notified the Spanish government’s Directorate of Culture of their remarkable discovery, and experts were dispatched to the site and perform a preliminary evaluation. These specialists quickly realized they were looking at something extraordinary, and after they reported their findings a full-fledged investigation was launched under the auspices of the Registry, Movable Property, and Archaeology department of the government of Navarra.
The cave explorers made their astonishing discovery in November 2017. The Navarra skeleton was subsequently labeled the ‘ Loizu Man ,’ in recognition of the exact area (the council of Aintzioa-Loizu) where the Errotalde I cave is located.
A Time Capsule From The Pleistocene
For the past three-plus years, archaeologists and anthropologists have been studying the skeleton of the Loizu Man on site, navigating the long, complex route to its streamside resting place to perform various tests and procedures. Despite being hampered by the difficulty of reaching this remote underground location, these experts have been able to accumulate some valuable data about Loizu Man’s life and times around Navarra.
Using radiocarbon dating technology, they were able to verify that the skeleton was truly ancient. So ancient, in fact, that it is the oldest intact skeleton ever found in Northern Spain , or anywhere in the surrounding region.
The skeleton was dated to the year 9,700 BC, or 11,700 years in the past. This means its owner lived during an extraordinary period, a time of profound global change that marked the end of the Pleistocene epoch (and the last Ice Age ) and the beginning of the Holocene period, which continues to this day.
The researchers also confirmed that this unfortunate individual was a young man, aged 17 to 21, and that he most likely did in fact die as a result of his head wound, which was presumably caused by a weapon of some type. His lifestyle would have been that of a hunter-gatherer, and like others of his kind he undoubtedly sought refuge in caves like Errotalde I during long, cold winters.
Bringing The Navarra Loizu Man Into The Light
The research into the Loizu Man’s origins and personal history is about to enter a new and exciting stage.
On Friday, March 12, 2021 the skeletal remains were finally removed from the cave in their entirety, which means researchers will now be able to continue their in-depth investigation in a controlled laboratory environment. Because of its remote and difficult-to-access location, this final excavation was a complex and delicate process that took 12 hours to finish.
In honor of the momentous occasion, the research team invited a group of local luminaries to come to the site of the cave to observe the completion of the extraction process. On hand were Enrique Garralda, the Mayor of Erro, Rebeca Esnaola, the Minister of Culture and Sports, and the President of the province of Navarra, María Chivite.
Speaking with reporters gathered at the scene, Chivite said the discovery of the skeleton and the continuing investigation represented “an exceptional opportunity to study how our ancestors lived and died, the human beings who lived on the edge of the last Ice Age, in one of the most severe moments of climate change in history.”
Pablo Arias Cabal, a professor of Prehistory at the University of Cantabria who will be involved in the next phase of the study, noted that the recovered skeleton “is unique in Spain and is a very rare case in the entire European continent .” He explained that the Navarra Loizu Man came from “a moment in the transit between the last Ice Age and current geological times, a time from which there are very few remains in the whole of Europe, and I would say none in such an excellent state of preservation as this one.”
Cabal said the Navarra skeleton would now be subjected to a “very large battery” of genetic tests , to see if it can be determined where the man was from, what his diet was like, and what diseases he might have suffered from before he met his demise.
A Prehistorical Life Of Mystery
Regardless of how far the continuing investigation progresses, certain questions will likely remain unanswered.
For example, how exactly did the young man die? Was he murdered by unknown assailants, or in battle? Or was his death the result of a hunting accident? Was he placed deep inside the cave to perhaps ease his entrance to the underworld (the afterlife)? Or was it simply to protect the remains from scavengers?
It seems likely that his body was wrapped in a protective shroud , and that it was carefully placed at a possibly sacred location. Was this an act of love and/or respect by parents or family members? Or was he the son of a respected ruler or a skilled hunter who was beloved by all of his people, and accorded a proper burial in recognition of his identity or accomplishments?
If archaeologists and anthropologists could answer questions like these, it would help them unravel the mysteries of life among the hunter-gatherer peoples who occupied the European continent at the time of the final retreat of the glaciers. But it seems some mysteries are destined to remain impenetrable, no matter how far the methodology of modern archaeology progresses.
Top image: A March 2021 group photo of the archaeologists on the team that brought the Navarra Loizu Man’s remains from deep within the cave where they were first found in 2017.