Atapuerca, near Burgos, Spain, is the greatest dig of modern times. Everyone is excited.
What is all the fuss about? What’s so special about Atapuerca?
On July 8, 1994, a new species of man was discovered.
They found human remains 800,000 years old. That is so far back that no one could believe it.
They are by far the oldest human remains ever discovered in Europe. We knew about Neolithic man and his cave drawings. We knew about Neanderthal man. But those lived 100,000 years ago, not 800,000.
Scientists had to give the creature a new name because his bones weren’t like those of any of the known kinds of hominids. They dubbed him HOMO ANTECESSOR. The current theory is that Homo Antecessor was an ancestor of both Homo Sapiens (us) and Homo Neanderthal. Precisely after him the species developed in two directions.
What was Antecessor like?
He looked like us. His face was surprisingly similar to ours, though his forehead slanted back at a sharp angle.
Did the archaeologists find out anything else about him?
Yes, two VERY SURPRISING things so far.
The first is that he had no fire. The nice picture you have of the warm cave with the eternal fire that someone had to keep burning to ensure light, warmth, and safety—that’s wrong. In the caves of a million years ago—even of 200,000 years ago or less—there is no evidence of any fire. No inventor had come up with the idea of using it, no Prometheus had brought it to Man.
So they ate their food uncooked. The piles of bones have scratches from flint tools but no scorching, no signs of cooking.
The second thing is even more astonishing. The sweet, stinky, brutes ate people. And afterwards they threw their bones on the same heap with the deer, the rabbits, and the bears. Which is how the scientists found them, all mixed, now 800,000 years later. There didn’t seem to be a ritual of any kind. Did they eat their enemies? Their dead?
This artist’s conception of homo antecessor appears in a brochure published by the Atapuerca Foundation and given to visitors at the excavation site. The artist is Mauricio Antón.
UNESCO declared Atapuerca a World Heritage Site in 2000 and many countries have sent teams of scientists of all disciplines to work there. Funds roll in from all over the world.
Not everyone is pleased. “You can’t get any of those scientists to read a book or to study the great achievements of man in art, philosophy, or literature,” said an old humanities professor. “But the whole crowd will go running to see what the monkeys were doing.”
All the illustrations in this post belong to the Atapuerca Foundation.
See this article in Nature Magazine