A step back to move forward: a geological re-evaluation of the El Castillo Cave Middle Palaeolithic lithostratigraphic units (Cantabria, northern Iberia)

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El Castillo Cave is one of the most important sites for understanding the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic in Europe. Despite its importance, the absence of a widely used stratigraphic section with detailed lithostratigraphic descriptions and correlations between the different geological and archaeological interpretations has led to confusion in the correct identification of lithostratigraphic units in the lowermost, Middle Palaeolithic sequence. This study establishes a new lithostratigraphic framework for the site, which can be accurately correlated to previous geological and archaeological studies and generates a solid working basis for framing the Mousterian of El Castillo Cave in the Cantabrian region and southwestern Europe. The geological re-evaluation of Unit XX (‘Mousterian Alpha’) has expanded its chronology, now ranging from 49 130–43 260 cal bp to 70 400 ± 9600 bp. Unit XXII (‘Mousterian Bet’) would consequently yield an age older than 70 400 ± 9600 bp and younger than the underlying speleothem (Unit XXIIIb), dated to 89 000 +11 000/-10 000 bp.