In 2001 archaeologists found a red female skeleton in El Mirón Cave. Skeletons aren’t normally red making this quite odd, and earning the find uncreative nickname the “Red Lady”. But that was just the start of the strangeness1.
Later research would place the burial at around 19,000 years old, just after the peak of the last ice age. Which is also weird, as no other deliberate burials have been found in Spain from this period1.
Additionally, archaeologists found the reason she was red was from because ochre in the soil stained her. Strangely, this wasn’t naturally occurring ochre, but imported from 30 km and mixed in with the burial2.
Gradually, a picture of what happens start to emerge and it’s maybe not as weird as it first seemed. The Red Lady was given a special burial with special treatment. Whilst the specifics of what happened might sound a little unusual, the idea of treating the idea of the dead with reverence is not.
(although I like to imagine that this special treatment wasn’t because she was loved, but feared. Like how they gave Imohotep a bunch of goodies in the (good) Mummy movie. Which is totes a legit archaeological reference).
The Red Lady has no head
However, it turns out that this reverence (or fear) got weirder, as discovered by Dr Ana Marín-Arroyo from the University of Cantabria. She conducted a taphonomic analysis of the Red Lady, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Taphonomy is the study of all the weird stuff that can happen to a body after burial1.
And sure enough, she found some weird stuff happened to the Red Lady. Notably, Dr Marín-Arroyo found someone dug up the body after it decomposed and just took the Red Lady’s skull, along with several of her limb bones1.
They (or an accomplice) then just left with those bones, before reburying the Red Lady. The clue for this comes from the fact she’s clearly still in the original burial, as the fiddly bits like hand bones that are typically lost when a body is moved are still there. Thus, someone must have re-excavated this to get their hands on the bits that are now missing1.
It was during this reburial that the ochre was mixed in with the backfill, giving her that classic red colour all the girls want. Here, the evidence comes from the fact this pigment overlies damage and staining that occurred on the bones. Thus, the ochre must have been added after the bones were already exposed1.
How weird is weird?
So, it turns out the Red Lady had a more exciting afterlife than just “buried with honours” (or fear). Someone(s) came back and removed bits of her after she was decomposed. Which sure sounds weird to us, but there are a few other examples of this in history1.
Given the huge swathe of time and space between these plaster skulls and the Red Lady, it’s unlikely there’s any cultural connection between them. It seems that, over the millennia, numerous cultures have had a bit of a skull obsession.
And, thanks to the work of Dr Marín-Arroyo, we know this extends even further back than we ever thought.
Marín-Arroyo, A.B., 2015. Taphonomic study of the human remains from the Magdalenian burial in El Mirón Cave (Cantabria, Spain). Journal of Archaeological Science, 60, pp.57-65.
Román, R.S., Banón, C.B. and Ruiz, M.D.L., 2015. Analysis of the red ochre of the El Mirón burial (Ramales de la Victoria, Cantabria, Spain). Journal of Archaeological Science, 60, pp.84-98.