Archaeological Site of Atapuerca
Archaeological Site Of Atapuerca
Cultural Spain Europe And North America

The Sierra de Atapuerca sites provide unique testimony of the origin and evolution both of the existing human civilization and of other cultures that have disappeared. The evolutionary line or lines from the African ancestors of modern humankind are documented in these sites. The earliest and most abundant evidence of humankind in Europe is to be found in the Sierra de Atapuerca. The sites constitute an exceptional example of continuous human occupation, due to their special ecosystems and their geographical location. The fossil remains in the Sierra de Atapuerca are an invaluable reserve of information about the physical nature and the way of life of the earliest human communities in Europe.

The site is located at the north-eastern corner of the Castilian plateau. Although more than 1,000 m above sea level, it is now no more than a gently sloping limestone ridge, largely covered with scrub and with some farming. Water erosion over the past 5 million years has led to the formation of a karst landscape with an elaborate cave system. The water table became lower as a result of geomorphological processes, making the caves suitable for animals and humans to live in them. The system of terraces formed along the southern margin of the Sierra shows that, during the Middle and Lower Pleistocene, streams flowed close to the entrances of these caves, making them especially suitable for human occupation.

The earliest fossil hominid remains in Europe, the Pleistocene deposits, from around 800,000 BP as established by palaeomagnetic analysis, were found in the Gran Dolina site in the Sierra de Atapuerca, one of the Trinchera del Ferrocarril group. They are associated with simple stone tools of the pre-Acheulean type, which is consistent with the dating of the earliest levels of this site. Also in the Trinchera del Ferrocarril group of sites are those known as Tres Simas. The oldest human remains from the Galería site have been dated to between 200,000 and 400,000 BP, associated with Acheulean stone tools. Similar dates have been established for human skeletal remains from the Sima de los Huesos in the Cueva Mayor. The absence of herbivores consumed by humans in this site, where the remains of no fewer than 32 humans have been discovered, suggests that this may have been a mortuary site. The relatively large sample, largely of adolescents and young adults, has permitted a number of important studies to be carried out on the palaeopathology of this population, the growth and development of individuals, and their average size.

The Holocene deposits are dated to the Quaternary period. The archaeological significance of the Portalón of the Cueva Mayor was first recognized in 1910, when the representation of a horse's head found at the entrance to the cave was identified as Palaeolithic. Subsequent excavations have established that it was occupied by various human groups over many centuries, mainly at the beginning of the Bronze Age and again during the Roman period and the early Visigothic period. The Galería del Silex contains abundant evidence of human occupation during the Neolithic and Bronze age. More fifty painted and engraved panels have been recorded, with geometrical motifs, hunting scenes, and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. Excavation has revealed a sanctuary in which funerary rites took place, with human remains (largely young adults and children) and ceramic fragments, identified as being related to sacrificial activities. At the far end of the gallery the flint from which the cave takes its name was exploited. There is evidence of there having been a similar sanctuary in the Cueva del Silo. Human activities have also been recorded at several other sites, such as the Cueva Peluda, the Cueva Ciega, and El Mirador. Human activity declined in the Sierra de Atapuerca with the creation of permanent settlements in the plains below, especially in the Middle Ages.

Scientific interest in the caves began in the mid-19th century, concentrating on the Cueva Mayor. This is entered from the south, giving access immediately to El Portalón. To the east lies the sinuous Galería del Silex, extending more than 300 m, and to the west the sequence of caves (including the Sima de los Huesos - 'Pit of the Bones') leading over 1 km to the Galería del Silo, which has its own access. To the north-west is the group of sites revealed by excavation of a mining railway cutting (from which it takes its name, La Trinchera del Ferrocarril), never to be completed. These are in fact caves brought to light by the cutting and so with the appearance of rock shelters. To the north is the Gran Dolina, and further southwards are the Tres Simas, with the important finds at La Galería.