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Atapuerca

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Home of Europe’s Oldest Human Fossil Remains

From San Juan de Ortega to Burgos the pilgrim traverses the Sierra de Atapuerca, the region in Europe that contains the continent’s oldest hominid remains, some dating to over a million years ago.

It is a stunning landscape to traverse because of its long ancestry for our human predecessors and it makes it easy to think about them as you pass. This can easily be considered the oldest human crossroads on the Camino.

Part of the attraction for Europe’s first hominids must have been the flora and fauna of the area. It was also a protected place. Atapuerca is a rich territory with many chasms, caves, cliffs, and rock shelves that have protected human ancestors for over 1.2 million years, from Homo antecessor, closely related to Homo erectus, to Neandertals, and later to early modern humans, right up to Iron Age, Roman, and medieval people.

Atapuerca’s caves preserve all of this, from fossils and stone tools to early modern human engravings and paintings to Bronze Age metalwork to medieval villages.

The earliest hominid fossil (a lower jaw and teeth) of a single individual who dates to 1.2 million years ago was found in a limestone pit in Atapuerca’s Sima del Elefante (Chasm of the Elephant).

The next hominid residents, several fragments of individuals, were found in a nearby site in Atapuerca called Gran Dolina, the Big Sinkhole, and date to around 780,000 years ago.

Some seven or eight individuals seem to belong to these fragments and they were associated with very similar stone tools as the Sima del Elefante find.

This is only the beginning since at the oldest strata at Gran Dolina, with a total of 19 strata, 11 layers were occupied by hominids in different periods. The last occupation was around 300,000 years ago.

Other areas of Atapuerca, a region with seven known occupied prehistoric caves and three open air sites, show similar occupations and still others much closer to our own time.

As you traverse this area, know that not only were Homo antecessor doing the same around a million years ago, but so were Neandertals over 400,000 years ago, early modern humans around 13,000 years ago, and Europe’s first herders and farmers around 7,000 years ago.

The two villages, Atapuerca and Ibeas de Juarro, are the closest settlements to the ongoing excavations in the site of Atapuerca’s limestone hills and both are the best places to stay if you want to take a guided tour at the site, which can be arranged in advance through the Fundación Atapuerca website (atapuerca.org).

Alternatively–I found this the easiest–you can continue to Burgos and arrange a visit to the site at the human evolution museum in Burgos, which includes round trip bus transport from Burgos’s musuem.

From here the Camino continues to Burgos.


At A Glance

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