History of Atapuerca
In 1895, a British company began construction on a railway line to transport iron and coal from mines in the north of Burgos to factories in Vizcaya, in the Basque Country. At one point, the director of the company, an engineer named Richard Preece, modified the initial project to pass through an area rich in limestone, in the foothills of the Sierra de Atapuerca.
Preece went to great lengths to get the mining train through the rugged terrain. The company literally blew apart mountains, carved through hills, cut down trees, and fitted rails. In his efforts, Preece would end up uncovering the most important set of paleontological sites in Europe.
That first site is known today as the Railroad Trench, a 1 kilometer-long furrow into which several caves filled with human and animal skeletal remains were uncovered open. The sites are known as Sima del Elefante, Galería and Gran Dolina, now open to the public, and Cueva Mayor, which itself is made up of Portalón, Sima de los Huesos and Galería del Sílex, and Mirador. These sites are only accessible to researchers.
Preece’s venture was ultimately a failure, but by the time the railway closed in 1911, a large number of fossil remains emerged amid a ghostly landscape of abandoned bridges, slopes and tunnels, attracting illustrious prehistorians such as Hugo Obermaier and Henry Breuil. However, that interest faded and in the 1950s the Railroad Trench was transformed into a quarry.
Then, in 1964, Professor Francisco Jordá led the first archaeological excavations in the abandoned Railroad Trench. The project continued through the seventies and eighties. Emiliano Aguirre, one of the preeminent paleontologists in the world joined the dig and with his help, the foundations of the investigation in Atapuerca were laid.
The biggest breakthrough came in the 1990’s. Emiliano Aguirre was reaching the end of his investigation and turning over the project to a team led by Juan Luis Arsuaga, Eudald Carbonell, and José María Bermúdez de Castro.
This new team would uncover a site that would raise Atapuerca to prominence. In 1992, the year of the Barcelona Olympics, the Sima de los Huesos returned a bone puzzle that, once put together, formed archaic-looking skulls. The scientists named the discovered skulls “skull number 4” and “skull number 5”, but they are commonly known as Agamenón and Miguelón (Miguelón was chosen in homage to Miguel Indurain, Spain’s greatest cyclist).
Miguelón ended up being a 300,000 years old hominid (Homo heidelbergensis) relatively similar to modern humans.
Then, in 1994 a male pelvis was recovered from the Sima de los Huesos in midsummer. This specimen was named Elvis, and was another Homo heidelbergensis, like Miguelón and Agamemnon. And in 1998 Excalibur was uncovered. Excalibur is an exceptional hand ax, made of quartzite, which represents the tools of the humans who inhabited the mountain range in the Paleolithic.
Gran Dolina, one of the three sites revealed by Richard Preece, comprises twenty meters of sedimentary fillings from the Pleistocene, that would end up revealing a couple of essential paleontological keys to understand human evolution.
The Gran Dolina excavation began in 1981, and this project’s big breakthrough came on July 8, 1994. On that date, 800,000-year-old human remains were discovered. Thousands of years of human history were compacted in this relatively small area: Human fossils, hundreds of stone tools, and the skeletal remains of several different vertebrates were uncovered. There was even a new species of bear uncovered, Ursus Dolinensis.
Three years later, after an exhaustive review of the remains extracted from this site that is know known as the “Aurora stratum”, it was determined that the human that had been uncovered was a new member of the genealogical tree: Homo Antececessor.
This finding became the oldest known European hominid.
New findings are discovered every year at Atapuerca. In 2008 remains of a species still to be defined were discovered, in addition to the oldest stone tools in the entire mountain range. A human jaw was discovered in 2011 at the Sima del Elefante. And a new dig began in 2016 after evidence was discovered that possibly the largest deposit of remains of Atapuerca was still underground.
Since 2000, Atapuerca has been a World Heritage Site and is without a doubt the epicenter of European prehistory.