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An Advanced Ancient Civilization Burned Itself To The Ground Before Disappearing 2,500 Years Ago

The Tartessos ruled what’s now Andalucía before mysteriously disappearing. Were tectonic plates to blame?


Rachael Funnell


Rachael Funnell

Digital Content Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Digital Content Producer


Cancho Roano revealed a weird barbecue took place before the Tartessians packed up and moved on.

Image credit: By Ángel M. Felicísimo - Own work, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An enormous pit stuffed with the burned remains of animals, ancient treasures, and unanswered questions was discovered in 1978 by archaeologists in Andalucía, Spain. Here, in the Guadiana Valley, they found the remnants of three temples that housed members of an ancient civilization. That was, until one day they decided to pack it all up, burn it, and abandon what they had built.

Much mystery surrounds the ancient Tartessos civilization that’s believed to have ruled south-western Spain from the 9th to the 6th century BCE. Throughout more modern history, people have suggested that it was a river, a kingdom, or even Atlantis (it’s not, and nobody’s even looking for it), but in reality, it was one of the first cultures to be established in the Iberian Peninsula. There are now more than 20 known Tartessos sites in the region,  revealing it was far more expansive than first thought.


The Tartessians left nothing much in the way of written testimonies about life in southern Spain during the Bronze and Iron Ages for us to find. However, thanks to the longevity of certain metals, we do have some clues as to how they lived preserved in curious sites of devastation like Cancho Roano.

Here, at the end of the 5th Century BCE, the Tartessians appear to have tossed animal remains along with prized possessions like jewelry and tools into a giant pit before setting it on fire. They then sealed the flaming pit and moved on. It might seem like a bizarre localized incident, but then a similar story was uncovered at Casas de Turuñuelo.

Considered one of the most well-preserved protohistoric buildings in the region, it was once thought to be Roman but has since been confirmed as Tartessian territory. It too burned many animals inside a large, sealed pit, painting a similar picture to the findings at Cancho Roano.

Coastal properties are all fun and games until the sea starts acting up. Were the Tartessians lost to a tsunami?
Image credit: Tyk based on Image: Iberian Peninsula base map.svg created by Redtony - CC BY-SA 3.0,via Wikimedia Commons

As for why the Tartessians seemed hell-bent on burning themselves to the ground, it’s a good question to which we don’t yet have firm answers, but researchers are looking into it.


"The most surprising thing for me is the very peculiar habit [the Tartessos] had of destroying their homes, that is, in all the sites found, the same behaviour has been followed: emptying all the vessels and amphorae, burning the building and burying it," said Ana Belén Gallardo Delgado, a historian and guide at La Mata, to Andrew Lofthouse, BBC.

"With the new technologies, I hope that much more can be clarified about the origin of this civilisation and delve a little more into its way of life. The Tartessian presence in the Extremadura area is becoming more and more important thanks to new advances in archaeology. Also, it is believed that another eight burial mounds found in the Badajoz area could be Tartessian buildings like those already excavated.”

The behavior is an eyebrow-raising one for modern historians, but it’s not even the leading mystery surrounding Tartessos culture. It’s thought to have abruptly vanished around 2,5000 years ago, and once again, the cause has so far eluded our understanding.

Given their location along the coastlines of an ancient Andalucía that was partially submerged in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s possible that earthquakes and tsunamis could’ve represented a unique threat to the Tartessians. One false slip of a tectonic plate may have been enough to devastate them, but it’s also possible beef with neighboring Phoenicians could have played a role.


Research continues at Tartessian sites like Casas de Turuñuelo, turning up new insights about their culture, meanwhile, scientists are also working on better understanding their trade networks which – based on the richness of metals discovered in the burned remains – it would appear was very healthy. 

When you’re studying lost civilizations many thousands of years old, it gets pretty complicated trying to keep up with the Tartessians.


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