Leslie Freeman, scholar of Paleolithic period in Spain, 1935-2012

Leslie Freeman, a leading scholar of Paleolithic Spain, died on Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore. Freeman, professor emeritus in anthropology, was 77.

Lawrence Guy Straus, PhD’75, a former student of Freeman’s, said, “Les had a virtually unparalleled record of commitment by an American scholar to doing Stone Age archaeology in a European country."

Freeman worked extensively with Joaquin Gonzalez Echegaray of the Instituto para Investigaciones Prehistoricas in Spain, in what Straus described as one of the longest-lived, most productive international collaborations in the field of prehistory. Through that work, Freeman "produced an impressive empirical record," said Straus, the Leslie Spier Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

Echegaray, a Roman Catholic priest, is known as the “dean” of Paleolithic pre-historians in Spain and was the founding director of both the Altamira and Cantabrian Ethnographic Museums. As a cleric, he has served as the dean of the Cathedral of Santander in the province of Cantabria.

Freeman and Echegaray co-founded the Institute for Prehistoric Investigations and the Instituto para Investigacions Prehistoricas, which were incorporated in the United States and Spain, respectively.

Freeman made a number of important contributions to the study of the Paleolithic period, Straus said. He increased scholars’ understanding of Neanderthal technology, subsistence, and other aspects of behavior, beginning with the work for his 1964 doctoral dissertation as a graduate student at UChicago.

His excavations from 1962 to 1963 and from 1980 to 1981 with F. Clark Howell—Freeman’s mentor at UChicago and later a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley—illuminated the life of earlier (Lower Paleolithic) hunters at the 300,000-400,000-year-old sites at Torralba and Ambrona in central Spain. Freeman also did important research on cultural adaptations, environments, and subsistence patterns at every major Stone Age site he studied.

Between 1966 and 1969, Freeman and Echegaray directed the seminal excavations of Cueva Morin, a major Middle and Upper Paleolithic cave site near Santander. It was the first truly modern, high quality, fully interdisciplinary project in Cantabrian Spain.

A burial from Cueva Morin (a pseudomorph) was transported to and conserved at the Smithsonian Institution, copied for display there, and the original returned to a museum in Cantabria. A pseudomorph results from the replacement of decaying flesh by silt that takes the shape of the original body; it reveals details much different from that of a skeleton, is more rare, and requires extremely careful identification and excavation.

In 1981, Freeman, Echegaray and their team reported what they interpreted as an intact religious, Stone Age sanctuary in El Juyo Cave, an archaeological site also near Santander.

The sanctuary, which was about 14,000 years old, was filled with animal bones, tools and weapons. “What makes El Juyo unique is that it tells us about aspects of a belief system. For example, the fact that hunting weapons were kept separate from sewing implements strongly suggests that the difference between male and female roles reflected in the material culture was very important to the religious ceremonies,” Freeman said at the time.

Freeman directed a summer field school for the University at the El Juyo site for several years between 1978 and 1999.

“Freeman’s excavation at and study of art in Altamira near Santander and his long-term excavation in El Juyo are also milestones, but it was the Morin project and his initial collaboration with Echegaray that ended the long doldrums that the study of the fabulous Cantabrian Paleolithic had been in since the 1930s Spanish Civil War and the long period of international isolation and poverty that followed it,” Straus said.

Echegaray and Freeman trained many Spanish and American students who went on to be leaders in the study of prehistory. “He was much loved not only by his students, but also by many citizens of Santander, for his bonhomie, generosity, gregariousness, joie de vivre, enthusiasm for archeology and passion for life. He was a ‘big’ man in all respects,” Straus said.

In addition to his fieldwork, Freeman had a long and distinguished career publishing important work on a variety of topics. His interests included paleoanthropology, statistics, archaeological methods, the history of archaeological theory, animal ecology and behavior, Paleolithic art, and symbolism in medieval art.

He was the co-author of seven books (with another in press), of four monographs, and editor or co-editor of six volumes (with another in press). He was the author of nearly 100 papers and book chapters on subjects as diverse as pollen analysis, theoretical frameworks for interpreting archaeological materials and their cultural contexts, Stone Age burials, and religious symbolism in Romanesque Northern Spain.

In 1975, he was a member of the first delegation of American paleoanthropologists to visit the People’s Republic of China.  

He is remembered for his teaching as well as his contributions to anthropology.

“Les took his teaching seriously and mentored many students who went on to successful careers in anthropology,” said Raymond Fogelson, Professor Emeritus in Anthropology.

Fogelson and Freeman co-taught an undergraduate course on hunting-and-gathering societies. “The course evolved into a critique of the many false assumptions about hunters-and-gatherers,” Fogelson said.

Born Sept. 9, 1935, in Warsaw, N.Y., Freeman earned all of his degrees, AB’54, AM’61 and PhD,‘64, from the University of Chicago. He was an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Tulane University before joining the UChicago Anthropology faculty in 1965.

He was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974, and at various times developed and co-taught new courses with colleagues at Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He retired in 2000 and spent much of every year in Whitehall, Mont., where he and his wife Susan Tax Freeman built a home surrounded by national forest. He and his wife recently relocated to Hillsboro, Ore.

In addition to his wife, Freeman is survived by his daughter, Sarah Freeman, of Portland, Ore., stepmother, Jane Freeman, of Sun City, Ariz., and a sister, Antoinette Freeman, of Andover, NY.