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?
(Click on thumbnail to enlarge)
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
Pingback: Homo antecessor, los cambios climáticos y la expansión por Europa « malcolmallison
muito bom,mas eu não achei o pesso de um homo antecessor.
Ken: Thanks. Funny theory of the Wissahickon Formation. I never got farther than that the continents fit together like pieces of a puzzle. A few million years ago Palin would have had Russia right in her front yard.
I’m a bit of a skeptic too but either way it is a really fascinating story and I’m sure more theories will develop over time. It is amazing how much theory and speculation is involved in science. At some point though more evidence seems to come along to make what seems far-fetched at one time now seem reasonable.
As bad as paleos and arkies might be I’m more amazed by geologists(I won’t even consider physics, which is way beyond me). Not that I don’t thoroughly enjoy reading the theories. But the theories are so complex and seemingly speculative: this continent broke off and became part of this continent which later was rammed by this continent which broke off more pieces that ended up in such and such a place. As far as I know no one knows where the piece of land I live in in Philadephia came from. The latest theory I believe about the Wissahickon Formation is that : “It represents the approximate location where rocks foreign to North America were attached to the North American continent during a series of plate collisions between 450 and 300 million years ago.” From a virtual tour of the Wissahickon. Who knows? But as I said it is fascinating to read and think about.
You and Erika are right to be so skeptical. So much of what paleos and arkies come up with is nonsense. But in this case I think the evidence is pretty good. My guide was one of the archaeologists doing guide-duty and it was wonderful to hear her talk about the work being done at Atapuerca. She was one of the lucky diggers that found a stone tool while excavating a stratum where they had just found human remains–that was proof that they were homo faber–she was so excited. I would be too. One of the cave strata (200,000 years old?) has bear scratches on the walls. Bears lived in the cave for God knows how long and, just like cats, they sharpened their claws there. So many things. You’d love a visit to the site. Another layer (thousands of years) was white with bat droppings.
Couldm’t that be (the scraps) that they eat the recently dead? So that no good meat get wasted? Still canibals, I suppose…
anyway, very interesting post and discoveries… I think primitive man is a fascinating subject. No wonder some prehistoric novelist (Jean Auel?) were such a big succes, even if some of it it’s just imagination… And erica’s obiection also crossed my mind when reading… Even with the scrap traces and all could always be another explanation, though, cannibalism is quite “at hand”… meat like rabit’s, I hear…
That’s good evidence.
Erika: The human bones were scraped with sharp stones ( they hadn’t yet started making flint knives) like all the others (the same scratches are evident), and split in the same way to get at the marrow.
Just because they found human bones mixed with animal ones doesn’t prove it to me that they were cannibals. What if they just threw their dead over there? What other evidence is there besides this?
Oh my gosh! I read a lot of science, but never came across this story. I find this incredibly interesting.
I have heard that they now believe modern man (modern looking, as compared to Neandrathal look) was able to develop because of a superior protein diet that did not require the heavy jaw muscles attached to a big center ridge at the top of the head (like a gorilla has). I find the cannabalism aspect both interesting and shocking….
Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine
Pingback: Bones » Eat Thy Neighbor