The human odyssey in Atapuerca
Atapuerca archaeological site
More than 300,000 years ago, a group of humans died in as yet unknown circumstances. Their remains were buried in the depths of a cave in the Atapuerca Mountains, where a group of Spanish scientists managed to bring them to the surface and discover, two years later, Europe's oldest human fossils. Million-year-old ancestors from the world's largest archaeological site, who invite you on a journey back to prehistory.
Atapuerca marks a decisive point in the odyssey of human evolution. The Atapuerca archaeological complex is considered to be one of the 20th century's most important scientific discoveries and is designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is barely 20 kilometres from the city of Burgos, and is home to the most impressive testimony to the origins of the human species.
A visit to the Atapuerca site, where research goes on to this day, begins at the so-called "Railway Trench", discovered during the construction of a mining train track at the end of the 19th century. From there you enter a cave known as Gran Dolina. It was here that, ten years ago, the oldest human remains on the European continent were found. This was a real revolution for the study of palaeontology given that, next to stone tools and animal fossils, human remains were found, belonging to six individuals who were alive almost a million years ago.
Here, bones and tools were found that revolutionised scientific thinking on the prehistoric period, giving rise to a new species in the chain of human evolution, baptized Homo Antecessor, meaning "the pioneer" or he who goes beforehand. Homo Antecessor was Neanderthal man's ancestor. The Gallery and the Elephant Cave are two more sites open to the public. This visit will leave you feeling that you are participating in an extraordinary discovery - one belonging to an as yet unfinished adventure - the development of the human species.
The Cave of Bones
The second largest site is known as the Cave of Bones and is closed to the public on account of its steep gradient. It was at the base of this cave that the remains of 32 individuals, of both sexes and a range of different ages, were found dating back more than 300,000 years. This was the culmination of a research programme which started in 1976 when Professor Trinidad Torres and speleologist Carlos Puch entered the cave in search of bear fossils and chanced upon a human jawbone. This was to be a new species, Homo Heidelbergensis, a link in the chain between Antecessor and Neanderthal, characterized by his height and strength.
The reason for such an extraordinary accumulation of human fossils, unique in archaeological sites of the same era worldwide, remains a mystery to this day. Perhaps the mystery will one day be solved by "Miguelón" - the name given by scientists to the best-conserved cranium of the Atapuerca site, which is probably the best of all the fossils we have relating to human evolution. Along with his 31 companions, he provides living testimony to the origins and lives of human beings during one of the darkest periods of human evolution.
The Archaeological Park
In July 2001 the Archaeological Park was opened to the public alongside the palaeontological complex. Measuring about one hectare, the park offers an interesting itinerary where visitors can travel back in time to discover human development from Homo Antecessor through to a Bronze Age settlement, not forgetting prehistoric fauna, Palaeolithic shelters and Neolithic cabins.
At the park you can also take part in entertaining activities: try your hand at pottery and fish smoking, or extract the pigments necessary for a cave painting. The object is to have fun while learning about prehistory. All this comes together at a wonderful location in the interior of the Castile Mountains.
More information: Atapuerca