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Critical gravity and magnetic data suggest the presence of a continuous zigzag exhumed mantle body inside the attenuated crust of the north Iberia continental margin. We propose that this body greatly conditioned the structural domains of the Cantabrian–Pyrenean fold-and-thrust belt during their evolution from hyperextension in Early Cretaceous times to shortening and inversion during the Cenozoic. This may be seen as a new line for cross-section construction and balancing, because previous cross-sections do not incorporate comparable volumes of exhumed mantle. Five structural cross-sections, constrained by the results of 3D gravity inversion, feed our discussion of the complexities of the doubly vergent Pyrenean orogen in view of the inversion of a precursor hyperextended rifted margin. In all sections, crustal rocks underthrust the lithospheric mantle in the hyperextended region, supporting that the near-surface exhumed mantle lithosphere acts as a more rigid buttress, allowing weaker continental material to be expelled outwards and upwards by thrusting during the Alpine collision; thus giving rise to two uplifted crustal triangular zones at the boundaries with the exhumed mantle. Contractional slip is localized in lithospheric-scale thrusts, which in turn reactivate parts of the extensional system. The NE–SW transfer zones that offset the rift therefore behave as compartmental faults during the orogenic phase. The amount of shortening increases from 34 km in the Cantabrian Cordillera, where the Basque–Cantabrian Basin partially preserves its original extensional geometry, to 135 km in the nappe stack of the central Pyrenees.

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