Atapuerca 2017: 1.3 million years of continuous human presence

In the 2017 campaign, direct evidence of the presence of the ‘classic neandertal’ has finally emerged in Atapuerca. This finding completes an amazing 1.3 million-year sequence of continuous human presence in the Atapuerca complex. Join me in the following journey through time to summarise what that means…

1.1-1.3 Ma | Sima del Elefante (Homo sp)

This site is a pit filled with 10 m of sediments. In 2007, a fragmentary mandible with some teeth was recovered from TE9 level, dated to 1.1-1.3 Ma. For the moment, there is no assignment to this specimen to a hominin species.

TE9d has yielded several remains of bovid, cervid, bear and many bird species, together with clear evidences of human activity at 1.3 Ma, including a flint flake. In TE16 they also found a flake estimated at 0.8 Ma.

TE7 is the oldest level in Atapuerca. In 2017 most of its surface has been cleaned producing more fauna remains. However, it may represent a period prior to the human arrival to Atapuerca. The excavation of TE7 will take place in the next 5 years.

Mandible ATE 9-1 Sima del Elefante Atapuerca

Mandible ATE 9-1 from Sima del Elefante, 2007. Photo credit: Roberto Sáez

0.8-1 Ma | Gran Dolina (Homo antecessor)

Since 1994 different samples from level TD6 (0.8 Ma) have recovered at least 15 individuals with all skeletal parts represented of Homo antecessor, potential common ancestor of neandertals and modern humans. Many bones show tool marks indicating cannibalism.

It is expected to fully reach TD6 in the next decade, where possibly hundreds of new H. antecessor fossils are waiting.

In the meantime, the 2017 campaign has progressed at the TD4 level dated to 0.9-1 Ma. They have found four new lithic tools, herbivore bones (some of them with cut marks) and carnivores like Ursus dolinensis (a species of bear defined from this site) and the European jaguar (extinct in Europe 0.5 MYA).

Gran Dolina Atapuerca

Gran Dolina. Photo credit: Roberto Sáez

400-800 ka | Gran Dolina (Preneandertals)

In the TD10 level a big diversity of fauna has appeared of both herbivores and carnivores, as well as a huge collection of Acheulean tools dated between 350-450 ka. The bones are broken into many pieces, showing intentional fracturing, cuts and hammer marks. The hominins brought different types of carefully selected stones and developed a standardised knapping system to produce flakes, which were often retouched afterwards.

TD10 is a significant level to show different modalities of human occupation (bison processing site, central camp) and to define models for the predator activity and the coexistence with hominin.

In particular, TD10.4 has yielded in 2017 a beautiful quartzite Acheulean handaxe (420-430 ka).

Handaxe Gran Dolina

Handaxe found in Gran Dolina TD10.4 in 2017. Photo credit: Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, twitter @WhiteRabbit36

430 ka | Sima de los Huesos (Preneandertals)

SH is the famous site with 7,000 fossils of 28 individuals representing more than 80% of the total fossil record of the Middle Pleistocene.

Some fossils from this site have also provided the oldest human DNA recovered so far. Their genome shows a clear link between this population and the neandertal lineage.

A new area of the Sima was excavated in 2017. The result is again impressive, with 20 new human fossils including fragments of tibia, hand, feet, vertebrae and crania. The size of the SH fossil record may potentially increase in the next years thanks to this new area.

A mandible appeared in the last day of the campaign, which may correspond to Cranium 15 (pending to study… Cranium 15 individual could be younger than the mandible).

Mandible Sima de los Huesos

Mandible from Sima de los Huesos, 2017. Photo credit: Susana Santamaría / Fundación Atapuerca

200-300 ka | Galería (Preneandertals)

This was a natural trap where many animals fell down and their bones were processed by humans. The occupation of the site was not permanent, but rather from time to time to enter and scavenge.

Abundant Acheulean tools and many equid and cervid bones have appeared, including mandibles, teeth, skulls, vertebrae and ribs.

In 2017 Unit GIIIa (270 ka) was excavated producing more fauna bones and tools. This evidence reinforces the repetitive use of the cave by humans to get the legs of the animals with the richest meat assemblages.

70-120 ka | Cueva Fantasma (Neandertals?)

The most exciting news in 2016 came from a new site, Cueva Fantasma, a huge site of 30 m wide and 10-13 m of sediment.

In 2017 they have cleared 10 to 12 Tm of rock from an old quarry. The lower sediment levels may correspond to 1,5-2 Ma.

The finding of fauna remains and Mousterian tools estimated at 120-70 ka suggests the presence of ‘classic neandertals’ in Atapuerca (pending final dating). In 2016 a fragment of human parietal bone had also appeared which could be of a neandertal.

Cueva Fantasma

(L) Cueva Fantasma 2016, photo credit: EFE/Santi Otero. (R) Hominin parietal bone from Cueva Fantasma, photo credit: Mario Modesto Mata / EIA

60 ka | Galería de las Estatuas (Neandertals)

Remains of equid and cervid were recovered from two sectors corresponding to the neandertal occupation of the Atapuerca sites, together with Mousterian tools. Some of the bones show cut marks. In addition, carnivore bones appeared (hyena, wolf). This site is dated up to 60 ka.

50 ka | Fuente Mudarra (Neandertals)

Around the Trinchera complex there are other 30 open sites with neandertal evidence. Fuente Mudarra has been excavated since 2012 and this year it has yielded a rich Mousterian assemblage. This site was a workshop that the neandertals used for a massive meat processing activity.

7000-5000 BP | Cueva del Mirador (Modern humans)

Modern humans used this cave during the Neolithic to keep animals during pregnancy and lactation (mainly caprid). Another level dated to late Neolithic or Calcolithic has yielded evidences of cannibalism.

7000 to present day | Portalón (Modern humans)

This is the main entrance to Cueva Mayor. It shows a complete record of human presence between the Neolithic (7000 BP) and the Bronze Age (3000 BP), until the 13th century. Hundreds of objects have been found there: pottery fragments, arrowheads, buttons, necklace beads, burins, spatulas. In 2017 two new objects are remarkable: a perforated button and a gold pin finished in two spirals.

Perforated button and gold pin Atapuerca

Perforated button and gold pin from Portalón de Cueva Mayor, 2017. Photo credit: Susana Santamaría / Fundación Atapuerca

Related posts:

  • What’s new in Atapuerca 2016: more fossils and a whole new site [link]
  • 5 key facts about the nuclear DNA from Sima de los Huesos [link]

3 pensamientos en “Atapuerca 2017: 1.3 million years of continuous human presence

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