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Thursday, July 17, 2014 (read 600 times)
Intriguing Finds in Spanish Caveby Tyson
Researchers have found 17 wonderfully preserved prehistoric crania from the muddy depths of a lost chamber deep within a network of caves in Northern Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains; welcome to Sima de los huesos, or pit of bones, a paleontology treasure trove that is yielding a fossil population that’s casting intriguing insight into human life during and before the Middle Pleistocene period.
The Archeological Site of Atapuerca
The 430,000 year old skulls’ features show that distinct types of human species once coexisted here, perhaps interbreeding and possibly vying for territory dominion a la “Game of Thrones”. Paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga, who headed the study of the bones, has likened the primeval drama to the popular TV series, adding that like the show, these ancestral folks also had to deal with “winter coming” in the form of an ice age. Inter-species breeding and battling may have continued as a growing sheet of ice expanded over Europe; a time in the continent’s distant past when human groups kept moving or perished.
The skulls display faces and teeth associated with Neanderthals, but their head shapes curiously correspond to older species. These clues suggest that Neanderthals experienced evolutionary changes first in the face and jaw and later in the rest of the cranium, in other words adaptive changes did not occur gradually and uniformly among all human species of the age. Instead, different species of humans with different types of evolutionary characteristics lived side by side in a very early European continent that we’re slowly beginning to understand today. The mix of characteristics also suggests that we’ve just met a missing people that may bridge a gap between older and newer human species.
The journal Science published Arsuaga’s study of the findings and asserted that this is the “greatest collection of human fossils ever recovered at a dig”. Hominin fossils are usually found in isolated examples, and skulls are extremely rare; the findings from the pit of bones give us a unique and exciting peek at an entire population of the species.
Nearly 6,500 fossils have also been found in the cave. Researchers of the site have come a long way since a study on three skulls found in Sima de los huesos was published in a 1993 edition of the magazine Nature, “back when we were young” Arsuaga has said of the cave’s early research period. Work has continued at the archeological site and in the laboratory ever since.
Elsewhere in the Atapuerca Mountains, exciting archeological finds have also been found at the Sima del Elefante. Evidence here confirms hominins use of tools and a jawbone with abrasions may indicate the prehistoric use of a toothpick.
UNESCO has accredited the caves as a World Heritage Site, explaining that the fossils it contains have provided a record of human existence in Europe that extends back nearly 1 million years.
The historic caves are located in the Spanish province of Burgos, in the autonomous community of Castile and León.
More fascinating clues likely remain concealed somewhere in the dark depths of Spain’s Atapuerca caves, waiting to offer more revealing glimpses into the distant world of Europe’s earliest peoples.
Keywords: atapuerca,atapuerca spain,atapuerca mountains,world heritage sites spain,spanish cave
Posted In: Culture