Late Neolithic/Copper Age Iberia

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Since the late nineteenth century European prehistorians have pondered the significance of the megaliths, fortified settlements, and decorated figurines of the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of Iberia, including the Balearic Islands. Many early scholars, such as the French prehistorian Émile Cartailhac and the Belgian mining engineer Louis Siret, attributed the development of these cultural features to invasions by or contacts with distant eastern Mediterranean cultures, such as the Mycenaeans, Minoans, Phoenicians, or Egyptians. The development of radiocarbon and thermoluminescent dating in the 1960s, however, undermined these traditional frameworks and demonstrated that Late Neolithic and Copper Age Iberian cultures predated or were roughly contemporary with their supposed eastern Mediterranean inspirations. There is also no archaeological evidence that similar objects originated in the eastern Mediterranean at this time, as some prehistorians of the late nineteenth century also noted. For these reasons archaeologists interpret the cultural transformations of the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of Iberia as the product of local sociopolitical, economic, and ecological forces. There were certainly, however, exchange networks or contacts among groups within the Iberian mainland, among mainland groups and populations on the Balearics, and among Iberians and peoples in North Africa and the western Mediterranean in general. Archaeologists are engaged in assessing the nature of these interactions and their role in the evolution of late prehistoric Iberian societies.


The Late Neolithic and Copper Age of the Iberian Peninsula lasted from 4500 to 2200 b.c. The Late Neolithic (sometimes referred to as the Almería culture in southeastern Spain or the Alentejo culture in southern Portugal) dates from 4500 to 3250 b.c. and was associated with the construction of the first megalithic tombs and the establishment of hilltop settlements. The Copper Age (also known as the Chalcolithic, Eneolithic, Vila Nova de São Pedro [VNSP] culture, Los Millares [LM] culture, or Bronce I) lasted from 3250 to 2200 b.c. and was characterized by the development of copper metallurgy, fortified settlements, and new ceramic types, such as bell beakers. In the Tagus River estuary of Portugal and in southeastern Spain it is possible to subdivide the Copper Age into a pre-beaker, Early Copper Age (3250–2600 b.c.) and a beaker, Late Copper Age (2600–2200 b.c.). Those archaeological sites that provide the best chronometric evidence for cultural changes between the Late Neolithic and Copper Age are Zambujal, Penedo de Lexim, Castelo de Santa Justa, and Leceia in Portugal and Cerro de la Virgen, Montefrío, Horno de Segura, Carigüela, Terrera Ventura, and Moncín in Spain.

Comparable to the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of mainland Iberia was the Pretalayotic period on the Balearics (3000–1300 b.c.). During this time open-air and enclosed settlements were established, and megalithic monuments known as navetas and navetiformes (boat-shaped structures) were built. Beaker pottery also was introduced, and copper metallurgy began. The best-known sites from this period include Son Ferrandéll-Oleza and Son Matge, both on Majorca. At the end of the Copper Age in Iberia many settlements were abandoned, and burials ceased to be used. The causes of these discontinuities are unclear, but they may be related to climatic and environmental change, social conflict, or a realignment of the political order.

Much has been written about the chronology and architectural development of the Iberian megaliths. Traditionally prehistorians believed that the tombs developed in a continuous sequence, either from large and elaborate tombs to smaller ones or from simple, small ones to larger ones. Absolute dating of the Iberian megaliths suggests, however, that the evolutionary sequence may be more complex than is traditionally conceived. For example, some of the simpler megalithic cists are contemporary with the larger, more complex passage graves.


Iberia is a complex mosaic of different climates, topography, geology, and vegetation, and this diversity played an important role in the evolution, economies, and interactions of Iberian peoples. The existence of these diverse ecosystems contributed to the development of numerous distinctive, though related, culture areas in the Late Neolithic and Copper Age. These areas include those of northwestern Iberia, the Beira Alta and Beira Baixa provinces of Portugal, southwestern Portugal, southeastern Spain in Valencia, the Spanish Meseta, and the Balearics (principally Minorca and Majorca).

Iberia, including the Balearics, comprises two major environmental zones: an Atlantic north and west zone and a Mediterranean south and east zone. The Atlantic zone experiences relatively high rainfall (more than 1,200 millimeters per annum) and cooler temperatures, whereas the Mediterranean zone has less rainfall (less than 800 millimeters per annum) and a warmer climate. The mountain ranges of Iberia provided the geological and mineral resources used to make polished stone tools, beads, and metals and also acted as partial barriers to human groups. The coasts, estuaries, and rivers, which are rich in animal and plant resources, were attractive locations for human settlement throughout Iberian prehistory and served as important transportation and communication routes.

During the Late Neolithic and Copper Age the vegetation that dominated Iberia was deciduous woodland in more humid zones and climax evergreen woodland in more arid zones. Pollen studies suggest, however, that both climate change (increasing aridity) and anthropogenic degradation occurred during the Copper Age and that these factors caused a decline in arboreal species. A similar shift took place around 3000 b.c. on the Balearic Islands, with the appearance of olives (Olea) attesting to a phase of aridity. Also at this time the Myotragus balearicus, a small endemic goat, began the process of extinction, probably owing to both increasing aridity and human overexploitation.


Late Neolithic and Copper Age sites are known throughout the Iberian Peninsula, along the coast and in the interior (including the meseta) and in the uplands and lowlands. During the Late Neolithic human groups occupied caves, rock shelters, and open-air sites, particularly on hilltops at the confluence of rivers. During the Copper Age some of these hilltop sites were walled and had circular/semicircular towers, or bastions, built into their walls. Settlements were established in more arid and marginal zones during the Copper Age of both the mainland and the Balearics, and some form of water management or irrigation may have been required to farm in these zones. This expansion into more marginal landscapes is a trend also seen throughout much of western Europe, such as southern France, at the time.

The typical size of a settlement area during the Iberian Copper Age was 1 hectare, with population estimates for these settlements ranging from a dozen to more than 1,000 individuals. There are, however, larger sites, such as Los Millares in Spain (5 hectares), and some exceptionally large sites, such as Perdigo~es (16 hectares) and Ferreira do Alentejo (50 hectares) in Portugal and La Pijotilla (80 hectares) and Marroquíes Bajos (113 hectares) in Spain. Scholars have debated whether or not the larger sites, such as Los Millares, can be called "urban." Within the enclosed area of some of these settlements, specialized activities, such as pottery production and copper smelting, often took place. Circular houses (cabanas) were built regularly within and outside the settlement walls. Storage pits are a typical feature of Copper Age settlements; at the site of El Gárcel (Spain), more than three hundred such storage facilities were found. When these pits are located in stratified contexts (such as at the sites of Almizaraque and Ciavieja in Spain), they appear to have been used early in the sequence and then went out of use; it is presumed that storage in pottery vessels replaced the use of storage pits.

During the Late Neolithic and Copper Age there were two patterns in which settlements and burials were established. In western and northern Iberia settlements generally were separated spatially from burials. In southern Iberia, however, particularly in southeastern Spain and along the Guadiana River, tombs sometimes were located close to or as integral parts of settlement areas. Cemetery/settlement complexes are found at Los Millares, Valencina de la Concepción, and La Pijotilla (Spain) and Perdigo~es (Portugal). Based on a major study of the megaliths of the Iberian Peninsula, conducted by the German couple Vera Leisner and Georg Leisner, a great deal is known about the location and content of burials during the Late Neolithic and Copper Age. In addition to megaliths, burials of this time—which typically were collective—also were housed in caves, rock shelters, and rock-cut tombs.


Many artifacts are characteristic of the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of Iberia, but because of the size of Iberia and the diversity of cultures that developed there, not all of these artifacts appear in all parts of Iberia. Furthermore, some objects may be found only in settlements and not in burials and vice versa. The typical artifacts of the Late Neolithic include ceramics known as copos (cups), with channeled decoration, found principally in Portuguese Estremadura. In southeastern Spain the appearance of almagra ware (pottery covered with an iron oxide slip) generally has been viewed as representative of the Late Neolithic, although archaeologists now recognize that almagra ware sometimes is found in later Copper Age contexts as well.

Objects found chiefly in Copper Age contexts include Symbolkeramik (pottery with incised ocular decorations), cheese strainers (quejeiras in Portugal and queseras in Spain), and ceramics with impressed folha de acácia (acacia leaf) designs and bordos almendrados (almond-shaped rims), the latter two types found principally in Portugal. During the Late Copper Age beakers of the earlier Maritime and All-Over Ornamented (AOO) types and the later Ciempozuelos (in central and southeastern Spain), Salamó (in Catalonia, Spain), and Palmela (in coastal Estremadura, Portugal) types are found. Also emblematic of the Iberian Copper Age are copper awls, fishhooks, and axes, although despite the name for this phase, the presence of metal objects is relatively rare on sites at this time. Objects found throughout the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of Iberia include polished stone tools (made of amphibolite, basalt, and dolerite) and flint blades, arrowheads, and daggers. Engraved slate plaques, primarily found in burials of southwestern Iberia, also are typical of this period.

During the Late Neolithic and Copper Age artistic expression in portable objects, monumental architecture, and rock art flourished. A wide range of artifacts, such as pottery (Symbolkeramik), engraved slate plaques, and baculi (the latter in the shape of shepherds' curved staffs), and cylindrical idols (made of bone, limestone, and clay) were decorated with geometric designs, anthropomorphs or deities, zoomorphs, weapons, and solar motifs. Megaliths (including menhirs and anthropomorphic stelae), caves and rock shelters, and open-air rock faces also were decorated with many of the same motifs as were found on the portable objects; sometimes they were engraved, and sometimes they were painted. Because of shared motifs throughout megalithic art and patterns in the placement of certain of these motifs, some scholars have suggested the existence of a megalithic art "code." Scholars also have noted the resemblance of megalithic Iberian art to megalithic art found in other regions of western Europe, such as Ireland, and posit that these similarities were the result of contact or exchange.


During the Late Neolithic the herding of livestock and agriculture were practiced, but it was not until the Copper Age that a fully agricultural and sedentary lifestyle was established in Iberia. Groups farmed wheat and barley and supplemented their agricultural base by herding sheep, goat, cattle, and pigs; hunting wild game (such as boar and deer); gathering wild plants and plant products (such as acorns); fishing; and collecting shellfish, particularly along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Richard Harrison argued that during the Copper Age Iberia underwent a Secondary Products Revolution, as did other regions of prehistoric Europe. There is archaeological, botanical, and faunal evidence that agriculture intensified during this period, livestock began to be used for their secondary products (dairy, traction, and transportation), and viticulture and woodland management were carried out. There is some debate about whether irrigation was practiced. Some authors have argued that there is archaeological evidence for water management structures and for crops that would have required irrigation (such as flax in southeastern Spain). Other scholars have used carbon-isotope analyses of archaeological seed remains to reason that, with the exception of fava beans, there is no evidence that irrigation was practiced during the Iberian Copper Age.

Craft specialization during the Late Neolithic and Copper Age is indicated by the production of bifacially flaked flint tools, engraved slate plaques, groundstone tools, copper objects, and decorated ceramics. The precise nature of this specialization and its impact on social and political relationships are under investigation. For example, the small-scale inefficient technology used in the production of copper objects during the Iberian Copper Age suggests that metallurgical specialization was part-time, kin-based, and dispersed. Evidence for copper metallurgy was found at Zambujal (Portugal), Los Millares (Spain), and Son Matge (Majorca). Similarly Stašo Forenbaher's study of the production of bifacial stone artifacts from Portuguese Copper Age sites concluded that relatively few specialists would have been involved in the manufacture of these objects. Moreover because of the restricted types that they produced, they would have not have had a great impact on the economy. Sites that were involved in the specialized production of flint tools have been identified at Los Cercados, Las Canteras, Almizaraque, and Los Millares in Spain and at Casas de Baixo in Portugal.

During the Late Neolithic and Copper Age there was trade in unfinished and finished items made of stone (including flint, granite, amphibolite, dolerite, callais, and slate), ceramics, and copper. There also is evidence for exchange between Iberia and North Africa; on some Iberian sites North African ivory and ostrich eggshells have been found, and on sites in North Africa beaker ceramics sometimes are seen. The variety and concentration of goods at certain larger sites, such as La Pijotilla (Spain), suggest that they may have functioned as central places for the distribution of goods.


During the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of Iberia marked social inequalities and differentiation appeared for the first time in Iberia. The precise nature of these social distinctions, however, is unclear. For example, whether individuals were distinguished by inherited social rank or whether some groups in Iberia could be classified as state societies are subjects under discussion. Archaeologists also differ in their opinions as to the factors that contributed to the social complexity in evidence during this period. Some have emphasized the water-management requirements of the arid zones of Iberia, whereas others emphasize population pressure or the trade of valued material or symbolic resources.

The variations in tomb types; their sizes, locations, and visibility; the number of people buried within them; and the quantity and quality of goods found with these individuals all suggest that Late Neolithic and Copper Age societies ranked and differentiated its members. For example, it seems reasonable to suggest that persons buried within some of the larger megaliths, such as the extraordinarily large Anta Grande do Zambujeiro in Portugal, with its 6-meter-high orthostats, or standing stones, were of a higher status than those housed in smaller megaliths. Similarly persons buried individually within a megalithic tomb probably were of a higher rank than those buried in larger groups. At the megalithic cemetery/settlement site of Los Millares, Spain, the tombs with the highest proportion of prestige goods were located closest to the settlement.

There are also important regional differences in burial elaboration and grave goods during the Late Neolithic and Copper Age. The richest and most varied tombs on the Iberian Peninsula are in the arid zone of southern Spain and the Mediterranean zones of central and southern Portugal (fig. 1). Tombs that are less varied and poorer in grave goods are situated in the Atlantic zones of Iberia, such as Galicia, Spain, and northern Portugal. Several scholars have suggested that this regional variability is related to the labor or risk involved in cultivating the landscape. In arid regions, where it was riskier to farm and where some form of water management or irrigation most likely was practiced, there were more opportunities than in more humid zones for aggrandizing persons to establish permanent control over agricultural systems and to emerge as elites, with political, economic, and ideological power.

Late Neolithic and Copper Age tombs in Iberia often were used over many hundreds of years to bury people. At times new tombs were built adjoining older tombs, such as at Farisoa 1, Portugal, presumably to house members of the same or related social groups. This behavior suggests that people at the time placed a high value on collective identities as well as on ancestral ties. Such continuities may have resulted from a need to legitimize family or lineage rights to land or resources.

There is both direct and indirect evidence for violent conflict during the Iberian Copper Age. The construction of elaborate systems of fortification with bastions, sometimes involving several lines of drystone walls (such as at Los Millares and Zambujal, see fig. 2), suggests that there was a need for defense and a heightening of political tensions. Weaponry, such as copper daggers, and painted images of armed people in caves also are indicative of militarism. More direct evidence of violent conflict has been found in the burials at Atalayuela, the Hipogeo de Longar, and San Juan ante Portam Latinam, all in Spain. At the Hipogeo de Longar, a tomb in which at least 112 people of different ages and sexes were buried with few grave goods, four persons were found with arrowheads embedded in their skeletons. At San Juan ante Portam Latinam, 289 people were discovered, and nine had arrowheads in them. At Valencina de la Concepción, Spain, bodies had been thrown into rubbish ditches within the settlement area, apparently without grave goods.


The clearest evidence for ideology and ritual behavior can be seen in association with the burials of the Late Neolithic and Copper Age. Throughout this period people—sometimes numbering more than two hundred—were buried in collective tombs, including megaliths, caves and rock shelters, rock-cut tombs, and corbel-vaulted tombs. Toward the end of the period, during the Late Copper Age Beaker phase, there was a tendency toward individual burials, perhaps reflecting the emergence of a new social order in which the memory of individuals took precedence over the memory of groups. Systematic analyses of human remains from this period are rare, however, largely because skeletal remains are poorly preserved or have disappeared altogether as the result of the acidity of the soils in which many of the tombs are found.

Megalithic tombs in particular have been an important source of information about ritual behavior during the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of Iberia. Michael Hoskin recorded the orientations of hundreds of Iberian megaliths and noted their highly regular orientation, with their passages facing east at approximately the axis of the midwinter sunrise. This easterly orientation seems to be a common pattern among megalithic tombs throughout the Mediterranean and may reflect a common ideology about the significance of the rising sun, a shared timekeeping function of the megaliths, or some combination of these two factors. Megalithic tombs on the Balearic Islands tend to face toward the west.

Scholars also have noted that the chambers of most Iberian megalithic tombs were constructed with seven orthostats. Some researchers have suggested that the number seven held important symbolism for Late Neolithic and Copper Age peoples, although Victor dos Santos Gonçalves argues that the number seven may be simply the result of practical architectural considerations. An odd-numbered group of stones would be the result of erecting one stone across the passage entrance; given the size of the chambers, erecting six additional standing stones would be a natural consequence.

Funerary rites during the Late Neolithic and Copper Age of Iberia included both primary burials and the secondary treatment of corpses. In the case of some primary burials, the central part of the body was cremated to eliminate the viscera. In the case of secondary burials, clusters of bone groups, such as crania or long bones, were buried together. Fires sometimes also were set within the tomb chamber, probably to purify the interior of the tomb. Grave offerings often are found with the deceased, and some objects seem to have been especially made to accompany the dead, such as polished stone axes and adzes (often found unused in burials) and engraved stone plaques.

The engraved plaques, made on slate and schist, have been the subject of a great deal of research since the late nineteenth century. To date there are more than one thousand published plaques. Traditionally they were viewed as representations of the Mother Goddess, or Eye Goddess—a deity supposedly derived from the eastern Mediterranean. With the collapse of the "diffusionist" framework in the mid–twentieth century and considering the fact that only about 4 percent of the plaques depict eyed beings, the question of the function and meaning of the plaques, the majority of which have only geometric designs, has remained unresolved. Katina Lillios analyzed the distribution of these geometric plaques by design, tomb, and region and suggests that the plaques may have been ancient coats of arms and that their designs symbolically recorded the lineage affiliation and genealogical history of elite persons.

Another curious feature of Late Neolithic and Copper Age Iberian ritual is trepanation—the drilling and removal of a part of the skull. This practice appears to have been carried out while the person was alive, as indicated by the regrowth of bone surrounding the opening. Examples of trepanned skulls are known from Cova de la Pastora (Spain). Trepanation also is known from other late prehistoric cultures in Europe, such as those in France and Britain. Whether this practice was part of a healing process or was used to remove a piece of the skull for use in other rituals is unclear.

Like megalithic burials, menhirs, such as Penedo Comprido (Portugal), and stone circles, such as Almendres (Portugal), also were important features of the symbolic world of Late Neolithic and Copper Age Iberia. Some of the menhirs are phallic, which may reflect their association with fertility (as in later Iberian folklore) or with power. Some menhirs have engravings of solar motifs, which, when viewed in light of Michael Hoskin's research on the patterned orientations of megaliths, may suggest that ancient Iberians tracked the movements of celestial bodies for agricultural or ritual cycles, as many ancient groups in western Europe also may have done.

See alsoThe Mesolithic of Iberia (vol. 1, part 2); Milk, Wool, and Traction: Secondary Animal Products (vol. 1, part 4); Los Millares (vol. 1, part 4); Bell Beakers from West to East (vol. 1, part 4); El Argar and the Bronze Age of the Iberian Peninsula (vol. 2, part 5); Iberia in the Iron Age (vol. 2, part 6); Early Medieval Iberia (vol. 2, part 7).


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