New discovery fills gap in Atapuerca’s history of human evolution

Two stone tools found in the world-famous archeological site in northern Spain provide answers about its early inhabitants

One of the 600,000-year-old tools found in Spain's Atapuerca site.
One of the 600,000-year-old tools found in Spain's Atapuerca site.AOC/EIA

Two sharp quartzite stones carved by a hominid 600,000 years ago have just provided the missing piece of the puzzle at the Atapuerca archeological site in Burgos, in northern Spain. While small in size, the find provides evidence of an uninterrupted human presence in the area from 1.4 million years ago to the present day.

“Thanks to this discovery, Atapuerca is the only site that can tell the entire history of human evolution in Europe with all of its human species,” says paleoanthropologist María Martinón-Torres, director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution and a veteran at the Burgos site. “These are precisely the pieces we needed to complete the puzzle.”

Experts had long been stumped by the sudden lack of evidence of hominids in Atapuerca spanning hundreds of thousands of years. The first human fossils found here date back 1.2 million years and belong to an unidentified primitive hominid, although there are stone tools that date back as far as 1.4 million years.

Then, 850,000 years ago, a completely new species appeared: Homo antecessor, whose fossils and tools have been unearthed along with the remains of his carnivorous meals, both animal and human. Subsequently, there is a mysterious interim with no evidence of a human presence until the pre-Neanderthals arrived about 400,000 years ago. “What happened?” says Martinón-Torres. “Did they abandon the cave; did its roof collapse? Had the humans left or did we not know how to find them?”

Like H. antecessor’s artifacts, the two new tools were found at the Gran Dolina dig, in strata corresponding to between 500,000 and 600,000 years ago. Used for cutting meat, these tools build a bridge linking the H. antecessor period with that of the new hominids – the pre-Neanderthals whose remains were found in another part of the site known as the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of the Bones).

Later, around 110,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were already fully formed as a species at Atapuerca, as evidenced by the remains of a toe and tools found in the Statues Gallery. There they remained until about 40,000 years ago, when their entire species was wiped out. Finally, Homo sapiens showed up, occupying the area from the Neolithic period, around 7,000 years ago, until the present day.

“I don’t think there is any other site in the world where all the human species to inhabit Europe have been found: pre-Homo antecessor, Homo antecessor, pre-Neanderthals, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens,” says Martinón-Torres.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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