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A Tour through the History of the Sierra de Atapuerca

By Juan Luis Arsuaga

ATAPUERCA. Sierra de Atapuerca (Campo de Amapolas) Atapuerca is like an island in the ocean of time. Wherever you look, there are millions of years of history.

The limestone that makes up the Sierra de Atapuerca was formed about 90 million years ago at the bottom of a sea during the Secondary or Mesozoic Era (the Age of Reptiles), specifically during the Cretaceous Period.

In the following Era, the Cenozoic, the mountain was formed by the folding of the marine limestone. After this, the region ceased to be a shallow sea and became solid land forever. This happened some 25 million years ago, although millions of years later, the raised Sierra was again pushed upwards, rising a little more. The Cenozoic, the current Era in which we live, has seen the spread of mammals, including humans, across the Earth, and the decline of the great reptiles. However, there are still crocodiles and birds, the latter being direct descendants of dinosaurs from the Mesozoic.

In geological terms, the fold that formed the Sierra is known as an anticline, which runs in a North-Northwest to South-Southwest direction in the area where the caves sites are. It is not vertical, but, rather lies on one side towards the Northeast, that is to say towards the towns of Agés and Atapuerca.

The top of Sierra de Atapuerca, the Rasa as it is called in the region, is flat and does not have crests. This absence of peaks is due to erosion, which left the upper portion of the mountain level.

Vista Aerea de las Lagunas de Neila en la Sierra de la Demanda If we look farther towards the horizon, we see other things millions of years old. To start, the endless Castilian plains, a product of millions of years of accumulation of fine sediments from the mountains that surround the Duero river basin. The nearby Sierra de la Demanda, located to the West in the direction of Logroño, marks one of its edges. The highest of its peaks is San Millán, which, at 2132 m (6995 ft), dominates the landscape from the distance.

The Duero River did not exist during the sedimentation process because the plateau was closed at that time, like a giant bucket with no exit to the ocean. Instead, there were large flooded areas and shallow lakes where limestone was being formed, but this was continental or inland limestone, different from the marine limestone formed at the Sierra. This limestone from the Atapuerca region, also called moor limestone, is around ten million years old, but younger limestone is known from nearby, higher locations that is around five million years old (the dates given here are rounded to make them easier to remember).

Humans arrived in Europe during the Pleistocene, and the most famous sites from the Sierra belong to this period of time that began about 1,800,000 years ago and ended 13,000 years ago. The last period, in which we are living today, is known as the Holocene.

Huge advances of ice, or glaciations, were produced in the Northern hemisphere during the Pleistocene, particularly during the last million years when ten large cooling periods were recorded. We do not know yet how the Iberian Peninsula was affected, since it is located at lower latitude, but it is clear that the last glaciation influenced the ecosystems and human life. In the Sierra de la Demanda, the molds of the glaciars, in the form of empty circular stone depressions, are still preserved where the glaciars occupied the top of the peaks at the end of the Pleistocene. They were not large rivers of ice, like the long outlets or tongues present in the Alps or other large mountain ranges, but rather cirque glaciers like those that can still be found in the Pyrenees. Nevertheless, they are witnesses to the fact that the cold also reached the surroundings of Atapuerca.

ATAPUERCA. Sierra de Atapuerca nevada Between every two glacial periods, there is a warmer phase, or interglacial. The Holocene is the last interglacial phase. There are also important sites at the Sierra de Atapuerca from this last warmer phase, when agriculture and animal husbandry arrived in the West.

Near the beginning of the Pleistocene, the Duero River began to flow towards the Atlantic, in the process, carving the valleys where the river and its tributaries flow today.

These valleys carved into the soft sediments that had accumulated in the previous period, when the basin was closed, forming the flat limestone of the moors.

All this, the result of the passage of time, can be seen and contemplated from the Sierra de Atapuerca. This small, flat mountain is surrounded by three rivers: the Arlanzón, which originates in the previously mentioned Sierra de la Demanda and passes through Ibeas, and its tributaries the Pico and the Vena; the latter runs through Atapuerca, on the northern slope of the Sierra of the same name.

But there are still more things to see, more shreds of time, if we carefully study the ground. In some places it is the hard marine limestone, in others it is the soft whitish soil called marlstone, lacustrine in origin, and in several places on the Atapuerca slopes, especially those facing the municipality of Ibeas de Juarros, our feet traverse a cobble-strewn field identical to that from the Arlanzón River. These are ancient deposits, hanging remnants from the same river, embedded in time. These gravels left by the water when it was flowing higher than it does today are called terraces, and stone tools from the different periods of local prehistory, since the arrival of the first humans, are found here.

Galería de las Estatuas (Cueva Mayor, Atapuerca) On the Sierra itself, rainwater was dissolving the limestone and carving subterranean galleries in its interior, going ever deeper into the ground as the river was carving its course. This cave system, which formed a karst, opened into what today is known as the Arlanzón Valley and the Pico riverbed, its tributary from the right. When the caves were no longer flooded by water, their openings to the exterior, or the entrances from the surface, were occupied by carnivores and humans. This is how the famous archaeological and paleontological sites in Sierra de Atapuerca, in reality sedimentary deposits at cave entrances, were formed.

All the caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca were inter-connected, forming a single karstic system, even though they are not presently connected. However, they can be studied from the surface with geophysical survey methods in order to trace the course of the galleries and their connections.

Since the water level that formed the galleries descended through time, we have an overlapping karstic system with three different levels in Atapuerca.

The highest level corresponds to the Cueva Mayor, which is the main entrance to the system and contains a site known as the Portalón in its cave mouth. Since this access has not been blocked and the entry is still open, there is evidence of more recent Holocene human occupations, from the Neolithic, Chalcolithic (or Eneolithic), Bronze Age, protohistorical, and even historical periods, all of which overlie older occupations from the Mesolithic and Paleolithic at the deepest levels. Coming off of the Portalón is the Galería del Sílex, which contains important Neolithic and Bronze Age engravings and paintings. In the southeastern tip of the Sierra de Atapuerca, the Cueva del Mirador contains human occupations contemporaneous with those from Cueva Mayor.

Atapuerca foto. Vista aerea de la Trinchera del Ferrocarril en la Sierra de Atapuerca Around the year 1900, a mining railroad was built in order to transport coal and iron from the nearby town of Monterrubio de la Demanda (in the sierra of the same name) to the Villafría station in Burgos. At one point along its path, it describes a wide curve, a semicircle, which crosses the Sierra de Atapuerca, cutting through the marine limestone.

Fortunately, this exposed a series of caves which had previously gone unnoticed because their entrances had collapsed and were covered with vegetation. Among these cavities there are three important sites that belong to a sector known as the Trinchera del Ferrocarril (Railway Trench): Sima del Elefante, Galería (which connects with the Covacha de los Zarpazos), and Gran Dolina. Their elevation within the Sierra de Atapuerca cave system corresponds with the intermediate level. All of these caves were used by humans in the remote past but were completely filled with sediments a long time ago, over 100,000 ago, and could not be occupied subsequently.

ATAPUERCA foto. La Trinchera del Ferrocarril (Atapuerca).
Archivo Atapuerca Finally, there is a lower level within the karst system to which the mysterious Sima de los Huesos, in the depths of Cueva Mayor, and the Cueva del Silo, which is connected with the former, belong.

The Sierra de Atapuerca is world famous, and rightfully so, for the human fossils found here, mainly at the sites of Gran Dolina and Sima de los Huesos.

The carnivores that used the Atapuerca caves also left their own remains there, when their time had come, as well as those of their prey, the plant-eating animals: herbivores. Humans did the same, also leaving behind stone tools and the waste material produced during their production. Nevertheless, there is one particular case in Atapuerca, at the Sima de los Huesos, that does not fit this common pattern in European karstic sites: there are no herbivores at the Sima and just one stone tool has been found, because this was not a site where humans or carnivores made their campsite or lair. Through this website, we will come to know all the underground sites in the Sierra de Atapuerca very well, all while traveling through more than a million years in time.

But before entering this world, it is worth it to take a look, at least briefly, at the animals that inhabit the Sierra today, besides the humans. This will make it easier to imagine the ancient landscapes and their inhabitants.

The rocks in the Sierra and its surroundings, the relief and geography, create different biotopes. In every one of them the vegetation and fauna are different. In other words, when walking around Atapuerca we encounter different communities of organisms, or ecosystems if we add in the physical environment. They are not isolated from each other, but to a certain point they are small independent worlds. The territory is the surface where life develops, the “skin” of the earth, and the more folds in this skin the more spaces that are open for diversity. In the prehistoric past there were also many biotopes, and the hunters and gatherers would find plenty of prey to hunt and plants to eat in that diversity of landscapes.

One natural biotope is the river or group of rivers that surrounds the Sierra. The Arlanzón is the main river, and Pico and Vena its tributaries. The Arlanzón flows swiftly past Ibeas de Juarros, accumulating abundant amounts of cobblestones along its banks during flooding events. Here plants and trees grow along the banks to form a riparian forest. There are rushes, grasses, iris, willows, poplars, ashes, and elms, living together with crayfish, trouts, otters, and kingfishers. At the village of Atapuerca an important wetland is being recovered, which will add a new biotope to the list.

But before entering this world, it is worth it to take a look, at least briefly, at the animals that inhabit the Sierra today, besides the humans. This will make it easier to imagine the ancient landscapes and their inhabitants.

The rocks in the Sierra and its surroundings, the relief and geography, create different biotopes. In every one of them the vegetation and fauna are different. In other words, when walking around Atapuerca we encounter different communities of organisms, or ecosystems if we add in the physical environment. They are not isolated from each other, but to a certain point they are small independent worlds. The territory is the surface where life develops, the “skin” of the earth, and the more folds in this skin the more spaces that are open for diversity. In the prehistoric past there were also many biotopes, and the hunters and gatherers would find plenty of prey to hunt and plants to eat in that diversity of landscapes.

One natural biotope is the river or group of rivers that surrounds the Sierra. The Arlanzón is the main river, and Pico and Vena its tributaries. The Arlanzón flows swiftly past Ibeas de Juarros, accumulating abundant amounts of cobblestones along its banks during flooding events. Here plants and trees grow along the banks to form a riparian forest. There are rushes, grasses, iris, willows, poplars, ashes, and elms, living together with crayfish, trouts, otters, and kingfishers. At the village of Atapuerca an important wetland is being recovered, which will add a new biotope to the list.

We know from fossils found at the sites in the Atapuerca caves that in the recent past the area was inhabited by beavers; their remains have been found among materials from the Bronze Age at the Portalón. Incredibly, there were even hippopotamus’ present hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Oak forests grew over the cobbles deposited by the Arlanzón’s ancient floods, at heights well above its actual course. Some forest patches still exist on either side of the highway from Burgos to Logroño. Above the town of Ibeas de Juarros, on the way to the sites, there is a meadow called Los Corrales, with several old and stout oak trees.

The marl fields located between the oak forest and the Sierra’s limestones, as well as a good portion of the fluvial terraces, have been cultivated since ancient times when the first Neolithic farmers arrived. Among the barley and wheatfields, quails and partridges can be seen and heard, and low above the crops, birds of prey glide silently and cautiously while the rabbits dodge them. In other times mammoths, rhinoceros, horses, aurochs, bison, and different kinds of deer grazed the meadows and prairies. Their enemies were bears, wolves, red dogs, lynx, saber-toothed cats and jaguars, which were later replaced by lions and leopards; and of course, they were also afraid of at least four different human species that prowled the Sierra de Atapuerca since the first inhabitants arrived.

The Sierra de Atapuerca is covered by different kinds of oak trees in the coldest areas of the valleys; gorse is the most common shrub, producing yellow flowers in spring. This is the kingdom of the roe deer, wild boar, fox, marten, and wild cat. Although there are no more goats in the rocky fields, they once roamed here as well.

All this marvelous natural, historic, and scientific patrimony was relatively unknown until the year 1976, when Trinidad Torres, a student interested in fossil bears, and members of the Grupo de Espeleología Edelweiss (Edelweiss Speleology Group) who were collaborating with him, found a mandible and other human remains at the Sima de los Huesos. Torres handed the material to Professor Emiliano Aguirre, his thesis advisor, who organized a long-term scientific project that has been directed since 1991 by his students Juan Luis Arsuaga, Eudald Carbonell, and José María Bermúdez de Castro.

ATAPUERCA. Brazalete de Oro encontrado en Cueva Mayor (Atapuerca) We know from fossils found at the sites in the Atapuerca caves that in the recent past the area was inhabited by beavers; their remains have been found among materials from the Bronze Age at the Portalón. Incredibly, there were even hippopotamus’ present hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Oak forests grew over the cobbles deposited by the Arlanzón’s ancient floods, at heights well above its actual course. Some forest patches still exist on either side of the highway from Burgos to Logroño. Above the town of Ibeas de Juarros, on the way to the sites, there is a meadow called Los Corrales, with several old and stout oak trees.

The marl fields located between the oak forest and the Sierra’s limestones, as well as a good portion of the fluvial terraces, have been cultivated since ancient times when the first Neolithic farmers arrived. Among the barley and wheatfields, quails and partridges can be seen and heard, and low above the crops, birds of prey glide silently and cautiously while the rabbits dodge them. In other times mammoths, rhinoceros, horses, aurochs, bison, and different kinds of deer grazed the meadows and prairies. Their enemies were bears, wolves, red dogs, lynx, saber-toothed cats and jaguars, which were later replaced by lions and leopards; and of course, they were also afraid of at least four different human species that prowled the Sierra de Atapuerca since the first inhabitants arrived.

Atapuerca foto.Sierra de Atapuerca The Sierra de Atapuerca is covered by different kinds of oak trees in the coldest areas of the valleys; gorse is the most common shrub, producing yellow flowers in spring. This is the kingdom of the roe deer, wild boar, fox, marten, and wild cat. Although there are no more goats in the rocky fields, they once roamed here as well.

All this marvelous natural, historic, and scientific patrimony was relatively unknown until the year 1976, when Trinidad Torres, a student interested in fossil bears, and members of the Grupo de Espeleología Edelweiss (Edelweiss Speleology Group) who were collaborating with him, found a mandible and other human remains at the Sima de los Huesos. Torres handed the material to Professor Emiliano Aguirre, his thesis advisor, who organized a long-term scientific project that has been directed since 1991 by his students Juan Luis Arsuaga, Eudald Carbonell, and José María Bermúdez de Castro.

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