Steven Ross Pomeroy
December 5, 2013
As far as mountains go, the Atapuerca Mountains in Spain aren’t much to look at. In many places, they amount simply to scrub-covered, limestone hills rather than towering, craggy heights. If the mighty Rockies of North America could speak, they might very well be scoffing.
But at Atapuerca, the focus is more on the sediments below the ground than the rocks above it. The area is home to a treasure trove of buried archaeological riches: fossils and tools belonging to the earliest known species of ancient humans. Rightfully so, the United Nations and the World Heritage Organization have designated the archaeological sites at Atapuerca as protected World Heritage Sites, for providing “an invaluable reserve of information about the physical nature and the way of life of the earliest human communities in Europe.”
The most famous site at Atapuerca, Sima de los Huesos — “The Pit of Bones” — is precisely that. Located at the bottom of a 43-foot chimney in the winding cave system of Cueva Mayor, it contains approximately 5,500 ancient human bones dated at over 350,000 years old! Now, drawing upon this piled wealth of history, Matthias Meyer, a lead researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and a team of colleagues have recovered and analyzed the earliest known human DNA.