The Prado Vargas site is located in the Merindad de Sotoscueva, forming part of Ojo Guareña, one of the most spectacular karst complexes in Europe, where this cavity called Prado Vargas opens.
It is a fossilized emergence that closes a steeply sloping meadow that slides down to the Trema River.
A place where its valleys, meadows, forests, shelters and caves have witnessed how the first Homo sapiens painted its walls, how the untamed Cantabrians defended themselves against Roman attacks or how those village communities that gave birth to the County of Castile were born.
General view of the Cave of Prado Vargas, excavation 2018
But long before that, 46,000 years ago, in this cave in the village of Cornejo, a group of Neanderthals lived in the more than 200 m2 that run through the cavity. Hunters brought roe deer, deer, goats, horses and a few rabbits they had caught into the cave. Other members of the group collected flint and quartzite from the surroundings, as well as large songs from the Trema River. And all together around a home they roasted, ate, made tools, tanned hides, while the children learned their tasks and played. Even their curiosity made some members of the group collect fossils from the area and take them to Prado Vargas. Today we know that for thousands of years groups of Neanderthals inhabited the whole region. Many generations with a common cultural heritage had their residence in this cave.
And all this began in 1986, thanks to Trino Torres who opened a small tasting in this place in search of bear remains and found the first tools made by Neanderthals. The stubbornness and illusion of several researchers has made that 30 years later it was excavated again becoming a key point to study the socioeconomic organization of these Neanderthals halfway between the beaches of Cantabria and the Castilian plateau.
When we arrived, a small door gave access – squatting – to the work area. The 2016 campaign was the first of this research project that has continued uninterruptedly since then. This campaign was enough to confirm that the record was of an impressive quality and that we should open the excavation in extension to know what activities and where they were carried out in the cave.
How did these last Neanderthals of the plateau organize their space?
A small quarry of students and a lot of desire and… let’s get to work, we opened the original entrance. 2017 was a key year for the project. In June the original entrance was opened, the same one through which the last Neanderthal groups walked. 60 trucks of earth left making a big platform in the entrance thanks to the unconditional support of Beni, owner of the meadow, Josetxu, head of the town council of La Merindad, and Luirra, mayor of Cornejo, who from the beginning bet on us.
When the entrance was opened and with an extension of more than 100 m2 to work, there were still questions: Were there levels with archaeological remains under the new excavation area? Would there be remains of homes? And human remains? We did a mechanical survey and found that under Level 4, which is currently being excavated (the first and most modern level with Neanderthal occupations), there are several meters more of sediment up to the bedrock, with older archaeological levels
Four excavation campaigns and many winter weekends preparing the work area have borne fruit. More than 4,000 remains have been recovered among tools and animal fossils that the young team has been studying to do their final degree, master’s and now doctoral theses. But Prado Vargas still had some surprises in store for us. He gave us the 2019 campaign, a tooth from a Neanderthal boy or girl and a combustion structure. A molar of milk from a Neanderthal girl/boy of about eight years old that fell there, next to the fire that heated it and the remains of food and tools. A snapshot from 46,000 years ago that those of us who were lucky enough to travel to the past will never forget
Neanderthal fossil and tooth found in Prado vargas, excavation 2019
Finding a trace as small as a thumbtack demonstrates the thoroughness with which Claudia, the archaeologist of the find, works, like the rest of her colleagues. The tooth was named Vera in honour of Beni’s granddaughter, whom we have seen growing up since our arrival.
And now? They ask us. Now to continue working, unraveling the stories of the daily life of Vera and her family. And now we are no longer alone. All of Quisicedo’s friends are here, Quintanilla del Rebollar and Cornejo, since this is not our project but the whole Merindad’s.
Dra. Marta Navazo Ruiz
Profesora Titular. Universidad de Burgos. Área de Prehistoria Facultad de Humanidades y Comunicación