Living Museums

Woolly mammoths and washerwomen: hidden histories of the Manzanares River

30 March 2021

Author: Clare Starkie

A stroll along the Rio Manzanares’ meandering paths is one of my favourites. I, along with thousands of other Madrileñes, enjoy walking, cycling and occasionally roller skating past native and exotic planting schemes, café terraces, elegant fountains and futuristic playgrounds. From its bridges, both old and new, you can spot herons, turtles, moorhens and other wildlife that have made their home in the sandbanks of one of Madrid’s newest parks, and much, much more.

Puente de Toledo
View from Puente de Toledo

When I first visited Madrid back in 2013, I wasn’t even aware that Madrid had a river. None of the tourist literature or walking tours mentioned it then, and it’s still not particularly well publicised. This probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, though, as unlike other European cities such as Paris, Budapest and London, the river isn’t positioned at the geographical or cultural heart of the city. People wouldn’t take a romantic promenade along its banks to admire the grand architectural landmarks, and it’s too shallow to be used as a transport route for goods and people in and out of the capital.

The recently re-wilded river

Having worked in English museums for over 20 years, I couldn’t help wanting to investigate one of the city’s hidden histories. I knew that the Río Park, developed between 2003 and 2011, presents a tidied up, orderly version of the river that is almost unrecognisable from what was there even in the last century. Its banks now no longer overflow causing catastrophic flooding that destroyed all bridges built before the 16th century and prevented the development of any major settlements. The M30 ring-road no longer envelopes and chokes the river, cutting it off from the rest of the city. Most of this motorway – once nine lanes of traffic – is now hidden inside 28km of tunnels directly beneath the river.

But what did it look like before all these modern developments? How far back does this story go?  How was it used by the Madrid people and wildlife throughout history? After hours walking up and down the river, visits to Usera Library and research at several of the city’s museums, I pieced together a fascinating timeline of constant evolution, grand ambitions and practical use that surprises people who have lived here for years.

The Manzanares has been the setting for many fascinating stories in Spain’s history, from King Felipe II’s attempts to engineer a transport route to Lisbon in the 1560s, to its role as a defensive barrier during the Civil War siege of the 1930s. But there are two stories in particular, millennia apart, that stand out for me and attest to the fact the city has been a vital part of Madrid life since its very beginnings.

THE MANZANARES MAMMOTHS

Where there is water there is life, so it’s no surprise that the very origins of Madrid start down by the riverside. Just as the Madrid City Council’s ongoing Río re-wilding project has sought to bring wildlife back to the once-barren river, those very banks saw the beginnings of Madrid as a home for animals and humans alike.

A mammoth tusk in the San Isidro museum
Elephant tusks in the San Isidro museum

If you travelled back in time to 500,000 – 120,000 years ago, you’d find the south side of the Manzanares, from Carabanchel to Villaverde, to be one of the richest Palaeolithic sites in Europe. This once-wide and shallow river valley was home to herds of elephants, hippopotamuses, wild horses, deer, wolves and big cats. The first Madrileñxs, hunter-gatherer hominid species of Homo Heidelburgensis and later Neanderthals, lived alongside these animals.

Mammoth, deer and horse bones in the San Isidro museum

The river was vital as a water supply, source of flint, quartzite and wood for tools, and provided food such as fish, eels, nuts, berries and seeds. 

Move forward to the Ice Age (115,000 to 11,700 years ago) and we’d see ancient giants living along the banks, including woolly rhinoceroses and mammoths.

When 19th-century workers extracted sand from the river for building projects, they accidentally uncovered prehistoric graveyards. Over 20 elephant and mammoth remains have been found so far, many near the San Isidro Hill, opposite where the site of Atlético Madrid’s former Vicente Calderón stadium now awaits development into apartments.

The final stage of the demolition of Altético’s Calderon stadium, 2020

These huge animals were hunted and scavenged by Neanderthals who camped along the river around 27,000 years ago. The stone tools found near the skeletons and the cut marks on the bones show that from 80,000 years ago, these iconic animals were a rich source of meat protein and nutritious bone marrow.

Tusks and tools found in the Manzanares River now on display in the San Isidro museum

MADRID’S RIVERSIDE LAUNDERETTES

Madrid’s earliest inhabitants used the river to survive, and for later residents it provided employment. Up until the 1940s, if you came down to the river, especially between the busy thoroughfares of Puente de Segovia and Puente de Toledo, you would have seen rows and rows of white washing drying in the sun.

This amazing spectacle included the lavaderos: wood and reed huts that stretched as far as the eye could see. These structures, either on the banks or sitting over the river itself were connected by pontoon bridges and walkways. Water channels were diverted to flow underneath the huts, so the women could do the backbreaking work of scrubbing and pounding the city’s dirty clothes and sheets while being sheltered from the sun.

It has been estimated that at the end of the 19th century there were over 4000 of these buildings at over 100 points along the river, leading to many complaints about the noise and cleanliness of the water. This industry employed thousands of washerwomen and a support team of carters and carriers, rushing back and forth through the city to collect and return Madrid’s laundry. 

This practice survived well into the 20th century, only made obsolete by the introduction of running water and washing machines into Madrid’s private houses, and by the 1940s canalisation project. This immense feat of engineering aimed to control the Manzanares’ precarious flow, turning the wide-open waterway into the high sided narrow channel that we see today. 

Snow from Storm Filomena earlier this year

Over the years, the Manzanares has seen many changes; some of these are still visible as you walk along its banks, others are hidden beneath the park that so many visit. We can’t yet know what changes lie ahead for the river, but it seems safe to imagine that there will be many more to come.

INFO:

For further information on the history of Madrid, visit Museo de San Isidro (The Origins of Madrid) and Museo de Historia de Madrid, or contact Clare directly by emailing her


Clare Starkie moved to Madrid in 2018 after working for 17 years as the Curator of Decorative Art for the museums service in Sheffield, England. Living in Usera, Clare is researching Madrid history with a special focus on the Manzanares river and the decorative arts of the city. In the near future she hopes to lead guided historic tours, starting with the river and its development. Enquire about her walks by emailing Claire and follow her on Twitter at @heapoffacts.

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