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Working tables of palaeontologists in a science museum, Spain.        Source: Joaquin Corbalan / Adobe Stock

A Site of Archaeological Treasure and Murder at Atapuerca, Spain

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The Atapuerca archaeological site is one of the most important in Europe, if not the world as it has provided a great many relics and remains related to some of the earliest hominids yet found. Atapuerca has also provided artifacts from the Early Stone Age to the Bronze Age. Because of the “priceless information about the appearance and way of life of these remote human ancestors”, this site was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002.

The Background of Atapuerca Archaeological Site

Located in the Atapuerca Mountains , the area contains at least six archaeological sites, and each one has provided unique finds. The area was first excavated in 1910 by one of the pioneers of Spanish archaeology. However, the full significance of the location was not recognized until a railway line was built through the area. 

The cavern revealed during construction work was investigated by a team of archaeologists in 1964. Within they discovered the fossils of early humans and artifacts from later modern human cultures which caused a sensation around the world.

Near the site known as Galería de la Eduarda y el Kolora, potholers discovered a number of prehistoric rock paintings which include geometrical motifs, hunting scenes, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. In 1978, early human remains and articles were unearthed. Stone age remains and artifacts were uncovered at Cueva del Mirador in 1999. 

Rock art discovered at Atapuerca, Spain (CC BY 2.0)

Rock art discovered at Atapuerca, Spain ( CC BY 2.0 )

In 1981 archaeologists began working on the large cave system named Trinchera Dolina. It contained the remains of many extinct human species and their relics. Even after decades of investigation, archeologists continued to find a large number of archaeological remains at the site.

Arguably the most important location at the Atapuerca location is known as Sima de los Huesos (the Pit of Bones). This small cave can only be accessed via a narrow chute and to date over 1600 early human fossils have been uncovered, including several skulls which were found almost intact.

Murder, Cannibalism, and Extinct Humans at Atapuerca

Among the many extraordinary finds at the Sima del Elefante site (Pit of the Elephants) are some of the earliest evidence of humans in western Europe, over three-quarters of a million years old. Experts believe these remains belonged to a previously unknown and extinct species of early humans, named Homo antecessor , the ancestors of modern humans. However, many experts believe that the fossils are from Homo heidelbergensis . Remains of Homo Erectus have also been found. 

Homo heidelbergensis Cranium 5 found Sima de los Huesos (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Homo heidelbergensis Cranium 5 found Sima de los Huesos ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Almost one in four of the bones recovered show indications of cutting and other human manipulations which has led to a theory that cannibalism was practiced at the site. Whether this was done for nutrition or ritual purposes is not known.

In the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones cavern), early human remains have been recovered dating back between 300 to 600,000 years. The remains are from early extinct humans and some belong to presumed ancestors of the Neanderthals dating back 430,000 years. Others have the characteristics of more recent Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) and skulls with characteristics of both Neanderthals and modern humans have been discovered. The remains found in the cave have enabled researchers to better understand the evolution of both groups.

Homo neanderthalensis, Smithsonian Natural History Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Homo neanderthalensis, Smithsonian Natural History Museum ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Tools and relics have unearthed at the site along with a skull that was fractured as a result of a blow. This is the earliest evidence of violent death in Europe.

At Cueva del Mirador the investigators found evidence of some of the first pastoralists and hunters in Europe, as well as indications that the cave was used as a dwelling, stables, and for burial purposes over 4,000 years ago. The 1,000 feet of sediments in this cavern may well contain an abundance of archaeological artifacts.

Visiting the Atapuerca Archaeological Site in Spain

The archaeological site is located in northern Spain, not far from the city of Burgos. Currently, three sites can be visited, which make up the " Atapuerca System, Culture of Evolution". A number of guided tours provide an overview of the history of the area and the discoveries. As the location is still being excavated by archaeologists, not all of the caves can be visited. The Atapuerca site is located near several other important historic sites and is set in a region of great natural beauty.

Top image: Working tables of palaeontologists in a science museum, Spain.        Source: Joaquin Corbalan / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Arsuaga, J. L., Martınez, I., Gracia, A., & Lorenzo, C. (1997). The Sima de los Huesos crania (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). A comparative study . Journal of Human Evolution, 33(2-3), 219-281

Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0047248497901330

De Castro, J. B., Arsuaga, J. L., Carbonell, E., Rosas, A., Martınez, I., & Mosquera, M. (1997). A hominid from the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca, Spain: possible ancestor to Neandertals and modern humans . Science, 276(5317), 1392-1395

Available at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/276/5317/1392

Ferna, Y., Dı, J. C., Ca, I., & Rosell, J. (1999). Human cannibalism in the Early Pleistocene of Europe (Gran Dolina, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain) . Journal of Human Evolution, 37(3-4), 591-622

Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S004724849990324X

Pares, J. M., & Perez-Gonzalez, A. (1995). Paleomagnetic age for hominid fossils at Atapuerca archaeological site, Spain . Science, 269(5225), 830-832

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