Archeologists excavating at Atapuerca have unearthed a small flint knife they say was made 1.4 million years ago, making it the oldest evidence of the presence of hominids at the site near Burgos, in northern Spain.
The tiny, three-centimeter stone fragment with a sharply defined edge seems to support theories that hominids have maintained a permanent presence in Europe for nearly 1.5 million years, José María Bermúdez de Castro, one of the three excavation directors, says.
"This would demolish the widely accepted theory that Europe was populated in waves and was empty of hominids for long periods of time," he adds.
The small knife was discovered at the Sima del Elefante cave infill, two meters below the spot where archeologists discovered a jawbone fragment in 2007 that, until this latest find, had been considered the oldest evidence of the presence of hominids in Europe.
"The site covers a very long period of time, practically from when the first humans arrived in Europe up to the present day," says Bermúdez de Castro. "If we add up all the sites found in the Sierra de Atapuerca, it covers a period from one and a half million years ago."
The site has been under excavation since 1978. In 2000 it was classed by UNESCO as a piece of world heritage. Since then, they have found skulls, bones and teeth belonging to what archeologists call Homo antecessor, who lived between 850,000 and 950,000 years ago. "Most periods are represented here. That's what makes it a spectacular and unique site," Bermúdez de Castro says.
This would demolish the widely accepted theory that Europe was populated in waves"
A hand axe found at Atapuerca's Gran Dolina led experts to link that large cave with the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones), which contains remains of the Homo heidelbergensis species, a human predecessor, dating back more than 400,000 years.
Another object found at Atapuerca, a 1-million-year-old sandstone chopping tool, led experts to hypothesize a link between 800,000-year-old Homo heidelbergensis remains with the oldest hominid remains at the site (dating back as far as 1.2 million years). But the dig has still not unearthed evidence of more recent prehistoric humans such as Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man, says Bermúdez de Castro.
These missing links leave a gap of some hundred thousand years for which the archeologists have found tools but no human remains yet. But the team is confident more will be revealed.
"There are just some short periods for which there are no remains," says Bermúdez de Castro. "I think bit by bit we are finding them." Through their finds, his team has reconstructed details of our ancestors' lives.
In Homo antecessor's time, Atapuerca was inhabited by hunters, around 30 of them spread over some 20 square kilometers. They spent time in caves, but lived mostly in the open air in an area well supplied with water, vegetation and animals, including lions, hippos, rhinos and bison, says Bermúdez de Castro: "Their physiology was probably different from ours. They could better stand the cold and probably had a good layer of fat under their skin, and more hair."
Territorial disputes were settled violently and sometimes ended with one tribe eating the members of another after killing them. "They would eat them without any kind of ceremony," Bermúdez de Castro says.
With the end of the current digging season, Bermúdez de Castro and his colleagues will spend the rest of the year analyzing the thousands of fragments they have found, the most interesting of which will go on display at the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos.