The human odyssey in Atapuerca
Atapuerca archaeological site
Over 300,000 years ago a group of human beings died under still-unknown circumstances. Their remains were buried deep in a cave, in the Atapuerca mountain range, where a group of Spanish scientists managed to recover them and find out two years later that they were the oldest hominid fossils in Europe. Our ancestors from a million years ago invite you to travel back to prehistoric times at the largest archaeological site in the world.
Atapuerca marks a before and after in the odyssey of human evolution. Considered one of the most important twentieth century scientific discoveries and declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, the archaeological complex of Atapuerca, just 20 kilometres from the city of Burgos, brings together the largest and most impressive testimonies of the origin of mankind.
A visit to the Atapuerca site, which continues to be researched today, begins in the so-called 'Trinchera del Ferrocarril' (Train Trench), discovered after the construction of a mining train line in the late nineteenth century. From there you can access the cave known as Gran Dolina where, ten years ago, the oldest human bones on the European continent were found. It was a true revelation for palaeontology: found next to stone tools and animal fossils were the human remains of six individuals who lived almost a million years ago.
These bones and tools revolutionised scientific thinking regarding prehistoric times and have given rise to a new species in human evolution, named Homo Antecessor (meaning 'the pioneer', or 'the one in front'), an ancestor of the Neanderthals. The 'Galeria' (Gallery) and the 'Sima del Elefante' (Pit of the Elephant) are two other sites accessible to visitors who, at the end of the tour, won't be able to contain their excitement from being an active part of an exceptional discovery and an unfinished adventure: the development of the species.
La Sima de los Huesos (The Pit of Bones)
The second most-important site, which is prohibited from visitors due to its steep incline, is known as the 'Sima de los Huesos'. There, at the back, the remains of 32 individuals were discovered in the summer of 1992. They were of both genders and varying ages, and were dated from 300,000 years ago. It was the culmination of a project started in 1976 when Professor Trinidad Torres and speleologist Carlos Puch entered the cave in search of bear fossils and accidentally found a human jaw. It was a new species, Homo Heidelbergensis, a link between the Antecessor and Neanderthals, characterised by its height and strength.
The reason for such an extraordinary accumulation of human fossils, unique in the world among sites from the same era, is still a mystery which may one day help us find Miguelón, the name scientists have given the best preserved skull of Atapuerca and probably of all fossil records of human evolution. He, like the rest of his 31 companions, provide us with a living testimony of the origin and activity of human beings, in one of the darkest periods of evolution.
In addition to the sites, there are other areas to visit that may be interesting. At the Visitor's Centre of the sites (CAYAC) you can find the permanent exhibition 'The Atapuerca Mountain Range, Natural and Cultural Heritage'. You can also visit the Experimental Archaeology Centre (CAREX) to better understand the production techniques and use of tools, containers, fabrics, ornaments and cabins in the past.Lastly, as a perfect compliment, we recommend visiting the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos (just 15 kilometres away).