“Sojourn in Spain (6): Atapuerca UNESCO World Heritage Site: Who are we? – Af Ron ridenour (eng)

En rejseberetning af Ron Ridenour: “Sojurn in Spain” – Med Collager af Jette Salling – 6. afsnit

KPnetBlogs bringer en spændende rejseberetning som sommerføljeton  i 7 dele skrevet af  Ron Ridenour med collager af Jette Salling. De to har besøgt Spanien og videregiver her tanker og indtryk fra landet – om politikken, historien, naturen og menneskene de har mødt. Teksten er på engelsk. Afsnit 7 udgives onsdag d. 16. august

Her følger afsnit 6. Se link til de tidligere afsnit nederst


We hired a taxi for the 15-kilometer trip from Burgos to Atapuerca since there is no public transportation. The chauffeur told us that most of the few villagers in Atapuerca live elsewhere during the winter and come in the summer to second homes. That explains why this rustic town seems like a ghost town despite the beautifully preserved houses made of adobe and limestone plaster framed in oak beams.

Atapuerca lays at the foot of a small hill where a modest church stands. Sculpture tributes by local artist Antonio Lingstrom of Velazquez’ “Las Meninas” and the ancient hominid Homo antecessor make this place extra special. Atapuerca is also a stop for the 800-kilometer walk, El Camino Santiago (aka St. James Way, Camino Francés). Some say it has religious origins from Saint James’ beheading in Jerusalem in 44AD. Others date it back to the middle ages, and yet others to pagan pilgrimage before Jesus Christ. At any rate, it is now travelled on paved roads by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world annually.

The low Sierra de Atapuerca mountains look like Swiss cheese because of its many holes caused by karst soil and dissolved rocky terrain. Three rivers flowed here providing for a wealth of flora and fauna. Long ago the area was a preferred occupation site for many large animals—elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, bisons, bears, boars, wolves, foxes, horses, lynxes, panthers and deer—and small animals—mustelids, moles, rabbits, shrews, mice and many bird species.

We stayed at the Papasol Rural inn, a restored rectory, which serves good meals and decent wines (Rioja is nearby). Innkeepers and local guests offer information and an atmosphere of hospitality. We could see five ponds that attract flocks of many migrating birds from our cosy room.

Our guide through the nearby archaeological sites was a young woman studying for her doctor’s degree in anthropology. She explained how the first archaeologically significant bones were found when an English railway firm was commissioned to construct a railway line. It uncovered some fossils yet it took many years before any were identified to be meaningful. Fortunately the digging stopped when the company went bankrupt and before much damage was done to one of the world’s greatest fossil locations. Deep trenches through rocks and sediments were dug deeper and revealed cave sites: Gran Dolina (Big Sinkhole), the Galería Elefante (Elephant Gallery) and Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones). Excavations have uncovered so much prehistoric life that scientists expect digging will continue to enrich our knowledge for decades to come. As it is now, they only dig a few weeks of the year because it takes so long to classify and identify the wealth of finds.

I caution readers that what I was told at Atapuerca, what I saw in the museums and what I have read about our distant ancestors is a mixture of fact and speculation. There are many theories about our roots. While most scientists are convinced that our first ancestors lived in Africa between six and seven million years ago, some learned Chinese believe the first hominids came from their part of the world. Although solid evidence found since discoveries after World War II put our beginnings in Africa, it wasn’t until we learned about DNA in the 1980s that most Western scientists accepted the “dark continent” as our beginnings. It took so long to admit this because of racial prejudice that whites must not come from blacks and thus humans had to originate in Europe. (8)

We were mesmerized as we viewed the excavation of the largest human fossil-bearing deposit in the world, as well as one of the greatest stone tool assemblages in Europe. All this and more about our roots have been found in the three pits dug down as many as 18 meters since 1964, but especially since 1978.

This exceptional reserve of data is located in a small area of the Sierra de Atapuerca near Burgos, known as the world capital of human evolution due to its Museum of Human Evolution, the National Human Evolution Research Centre where scientists from around the world join forces, and the University of Burgos, which focuses on pre-history and palaeontology. Evolution material and displays are also shown at a new location, the Fundación de Atapuerca near the sites.

The hills and plains saturated in a wealth of flora and fauna attracted many hominids: Homo antecessor (meaning pioneer/explorer and is so far Europe’s first known hominid), Homo heidelbergensis, and as yet an unknown hominid, temporarily called Homo SP (species). This SP could be the direct ancestor to Homo Neanderthal and Homo sapien also found here.

Amazingly all this wealth of life has been found within a kilometer where the three pits have uncovered several caves where animals were trapped or lived, and where settlements of the various hominids lived in caves, layered on top of one another without their knowledge.

Antecessor is thought to have been the first series of hominids out of Africa into Eurasia. In 1997, eighty fossils of six antecessor individuals (fragments and a lower jawbone) were discovered at two Atapuerca caves. Later, some fragments were discovered in France and England where 800,000 year-old footprints were also found. Antecessors stood tall between 1.6 and 1.8 meters. Males weighed up to 90 kilos. Their brain size was between 1000 and 1150cm3.

The earliest data of these hominids dates back 1.3-5 million years. They lived in groups of about 30 persons, and died out 800,000 years ago. Homo antecessors made stone knives that could de-flesh large animals such as mammoths, hippos and rhinos.

Model of a female Homo antecessor of Atapuerca practicing cannibalism (Ibeas Museum, Burgos, Spain)

Scientists have learned that H. antecessors found in the lower caves were mainly vegetarian, but they did eat some meat including hominid flesh. It is not known if this cannibalism was practiced only on hominids once they died or if some might have been killed, in order to be eaten. Most other hominids, including Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens, practiced cannibalism sometimes. Recent studies (8) show that sapiens sucked bone marrow of deceased family members perhaps in their homage rather than for nourishment. Skull caps could have been used for drinking water and holding food. Both Neanderthals and sapiens had rich cultures with artifacts, jewelry, rock/cave paintings, fire and language. They obtained much more nourishment from hunting animals than eating themselves. Even some modern sapiens practice or recently practiced cannibalism for various reasons, including for food—Fore people in Papua New Guinea for instance.

Various hominid-peoples lived in the Atapuerca area down through to the Iron Age. Cave burials continued until at least 4000 years ago. Neanderthals, known to be descendents of Homo heidelbergensis, lived in the open plains here between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. They mingled with early Homo sapiens, who also lived in these plains and hills. These most modern hominids also paired. Neanderthals existed between 150,000 and 28,000 years ago in Africa, Asia and Europe. Their extinction is still a mystery but it is thought to have to do with climatic changes rather than genocide by Homo sapiens, who were better able to adapt to climate change. Homo sapiens evolved in Ethiopia some 150,000-200,000 years ago (9), then in the Near East 100,000 and in Europe 35,000-40,000 years ago.

Homo heidelbergensis are thought to be a distant offspring of Homo antecessor. They have been found at two other sites within sight of where antecessor was found: Covacho de los Zarpazos and Sima de los Huesos. Heidelbergensis fossils dating 700,000 ago have been recovered in Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa. Many scientists believe that groups of Heidelbergensis migrated to West Asia and Europe between 600,000 and 400,000 years ago, and thus the finds in Atapuerca, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. A complete pelvis of a 45 year-old burly male was found in Atapuerca to be 500,000 years old. The first find of these people in Europe was at the Heidelberg site in Germany, and thus their name.

Heidelbergensis were tall, broad and burly. Males averaged 1.75 meters and weighed 60 kilos; females 1.57 meters and 50 kilos. Some males were as heavy as 90 kilos. They had a 1280 cm3 size brain, nearly as large as Homo sapiens, 1350 cm3. Homo Neanderthals had larger brains, 1500 cm3. In the latter part of H. heidelbergensis existence some brains grew to as much as 1450 cm3.

Homo heidelbergensis. (Skin color and hair style are guesses
but body is based on skeletal remains)

The largest and most significant human fossil find is in the Sima de los Huesos. Body parts and craniums of twenty-eight Homo heidelbergensis are among 3000 human fossils uncovered there. A large pile of bones of individuals of all ages appears to have been brought by peers to this cave and thrown or placed in a shaft (“pit”) there. This act may be the first symbolic expression in the archaeological record. They may have also been the first hominids to bury their dead.

Our guide explained that they cared for one another when an individual could no longer obtain or chew food. Teeth have been found that show infections would have prohibited the individual from chewing its food, mainly hard roots and nuts. Someone had to have chewed the food for the person and then fed him or her, just like some mother birds and animals do for their babies. These people also ate herbs and fruits, as well as meat from large and small animals. There is as yet no unequivocal evidence that they practiced cannibalism, albeit a face of one of their people in Ethiopia appears to have been de-fleshed as in cannibalism.

Heidelbergensis people formed a cohesive clan. Fertility seems to have been frequent with short intervals between pregnancies, which usually began at age 15. Child birth was probably easier then than today because baby heads were smaller. Life expectancy was longer than other hominids due to greater care of the group’s young, elderly and sick persons.

Archeologists model of Heidelbergensis group camp, Atapuerca mountain range near Burgos, Spain, 400,000 years ago.

Scientists at Atapuerca have analyzed a 450,000 year old H. heidelbergensis femur. The discovery of this prehistoric DNA is a major achievement as is the sequencing of ancient genetic material. This helps to trace genetic links to descendants such as ourselves. Scientists now believe that H. heidelbergensis is the ancestor of Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens, even perhaps the most recent find Denisovans (named for the cave in Altai Mountains in Siberia where a Denisovan female finger 41,000 years old was found). (10)

Heidelbergensis mastered fire and communicated using language. Fire was known to African peoples one million years ago and in Europe several hundreds of thousands of years ago. They may have been the first hominids to build shelters above ground of wood and rock, as well as living in caves. They were also the first to use wooden spears for hunting. Stone points for hunting have also been found. This could mean that Sapiens and Neanderthals inherited the stone-tipped spear rather than developing the technology. Heidelbergensis used flint and quartzite to dismember and skin animals. Their prey was the largest of animals: elephants, rhinos, hippos. Horses were a specialty.

Mastering fire allowed them to create a social space after dark. They transformed the environment and humanized the land. “Their society was more important than the individual, and their group bonds opened the way to compassion and symbolism.” (From “Illustrated Guide to Atapuerca”.)

Could these discoveries of our past enable us to change our present, in order to liberate our future so we can live harmoniously and peacefully as Homo heidelbergensis people apparently did?

Se de tidligere afsnit:

Afsnit 1 med intro (oversat til dansk)

Afsnit 2: Art, War and Peace

Afsnit 3: Almeria and Podemos

Afsnit 4: Barcelona, Catalonia sovereignty and civil war

Afsnit 5: “Sojourn in Spain (5): Basque Country: Bilbao, San Sebastian, Guernica


(1) See Randy’s piece: http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/07/20/when-i-started-hating-america/
Regarding American Exceptionalism, John Pilger referred to President Barak Obama’s exclamation: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being”. This is what Pilger meant when he wrote, “American political life is a cultish extremism that approaches fascism.” See his piece, “The Issue is not Trump, it is us” https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/01/17/the-issue-is-not-trump-it-is-us/

(2) “How many Muslim countries has the U.S. bombed or occupied since 1980?” wrote Glenn Greenwald, November 6, 2014.Greenwald cited former army colonel Andrew Bacevich, who wrote that Syria had become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that US forces had invaded, occupied and/or bombed, and in which US forces killed and/or were killed. And that was just since 1980. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/even-if-we-defeat-the-islamic-state-well-still-lose-the-bigger-war/2014/10/03/e8c0585e-4353-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html?utm_term=.b8ff8d252546

Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.)

Nobel peace prize winner President Barak Obama, the hope of black and “progressive” Americans whom Colonel Bacevich supported in his first election, bombed seven Muslim countries plus Muslim areas of Philippines. Obama was the fourth consecutive US president to bomb Iraq. Look up on the internet for a “list of wars involving Spain.” It should not be surprising that “chickens come home to roost”.

(3) Fuengirola is said to have acquired its name after the Arabs were overthrown by Spanish Christians. Moors had called the town Sohail. The river flowing through the town, which empties into the Mediterranean, was once navigable and used especially by fishers. The hub of a boat is called a nave, as is the central passage of churches. The Spanish word for nave is “girola”. The Christians were mainly farmers and fishers and they went to church a lot. It became common to say that one went to fish on the river. The past tense of “to go” in Spanish is “fue”. So, one could say, “fue a girola”—I navigated the river or: gone fishing.

(4) In April municipal elections pro- monarchists received 25.6% of the vote; the rest were for a republic. In general elections, 70% of those eligible voted, considered high. At that time, however, women were denied the vote, although ironically they could run for office. The republican constitution of December 1931 granted the right to vote, and many other equal rights. Of the 34 political parties that won over 1% of the vote and thereby a seat in the 473-seat parliament, outright monarchist parties only received 10 seats; and rightist parties won 20 seats. The republican and socialist coalition won a huge victory with 34% of votes (193 seats), while the social democratic PSOE took 14% (80 seats).

(5) Germany provided Franco forces with 600 war planes, 200 tanks, and 16,000 soldiers. Italy added 660 warplanes, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 10,000 machine guns, 140,000 rifles, and 50,000 soldiers. Portugal sent 20,000 “volunteer” soldiers.

(6) The Soviet Union provided military assistance at the cost of all the Republic’s gold reserves. It sent old equipment no match for the more modern axis weapons: 1000-2000 artillery pieces, out-dated rifles, 350 tanks and 600-800 planes. Their 2000-3000 soldiers were mostly volunteers, advisors and secret service personnel. Mexico was the only other country to help the Republic. It provided about $2 million in aid, which included 20,000 rifles. It was also offered sanctuary for about 50,000 refugees after the Republic fell. But the European democracies and the US declared neutrality and didn’t even offer returning internationalists safety. Some were imprisoned in their home countries.

(7) See the Basque GARA newspaper, March 20, 2017, www.naiz.eus.

(8) See: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/989, and one of the best books on the subject “Illustrated Guide to Atapuerca”, written by a team of experts, Atapuerca Research Team, EIA. More material can be bought at the Burgos Museum of Human Evolution and the Atapuerca Foundation and Reception Centre. See Scientific Report, 7 for study on cannibalism: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep44707

(9) As I edit this work for the last time, scientists just discovered that Homo sapiens are 100,000 older than believed until June 2017, around 315,000 years old. One skull, one complete mandible with teeth, and many other bones of five individuals who died about the same time were uncovered in Morocco (Jebel Irhoud) far from the other earliest evidence of modern man. “We did not evolve from a single ‘cradle of mankind’ somewhere in East Africa,” declared Philipp Gunz, one of the discoverers. They looked like us; they made complex tools, including wooden handled spears and cooked their food. With this find, Homo sapiens are older than Neanderthals—for the moment. See Nature international journal of science, and major newspaper articles, June 7.

(10) DNA=deoxyribonucleic acid, which is the hereditary material in cells, which is our basic building blocks.

(11) UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) reported that there are more people fleeing their home lands (including refugee and asylum seekers) today than since World War II: 65.3 million. Only six percent attempt to come to Europe. Europe received 1.1 million asylum applications in 2016. In 2014, 57 people drowned on their way to Europe; in 2015, 1,855; in 2016, over 5,000 drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. In one week in May 2016, 880 drowned en route. Most European nations and the EU commission seek to stop anyone from aiding them. Greece, Denmark and Hungry fine or imprison people for doing so.

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