Fossils In Spain Are Treasure-Trove For Scientists

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Human fossils have been found from the Ethiopian highlands to the Indonesian island of Java. However, the single site with the biggest deposits is located in northern Spain.

About 150 miles north of Madrid, a jeep pulls up to a clump of trees in the Sierra de Atapuerca, a collection of hills that are rich with caves.

A man with a helmet and a miner's headlamp gets out. He looks more like a mountain guide than a scientist. He's Juan Luis Arsuaga, Spain's best-known paleontologist.

He walks into a large cave, which is marked by a pirate flag. "This is the entrance to the site that has produced the most human fossils in history," Arsuaga says. "What better way to mark it?"

The Atapuerca hills are made of what's called karstic limestone, which means they're riddled with subterranean tunnels and caverns. In the 19th century, a British mining company discovered them when it blasted through a hill to lay down a railway.

At first, only animal bones were found. Then in 1976, a paleontology student found the first human remains. Since then, an abundance of human fossils and stone tools have been found.

Inside the cave, a group of paleontologists prepares to go even deeper underground. One of them is Rolf Quam, a paleoanthropologist from Binghamton University in New York.

"In the field of human evolution, which is what I'm in, Atapuerca is a world reference site," Quam says. "This is the richest fossil bearing deposits in the world. And every single site in Atapuerca that has been excavated has yielded human remains, which is something that is very unusual."

Last year, the team uncovered a 1.2 million-year-old jawbone fragment from a species known as Homo antecessor. It's the oldest hominid fossil ever found in western Europe...

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Donald Wolberg - 8/5/2009

That the Arican australopithecine complex of discoveries remain as a core of human ancestry notions is undenied. But the role of Europe (and Asia) in the evolution of apes and humans was perhaps too long overshadowed. The remarkable Spanish discoveries are yet to be fully appreciated and only further research will make clear their place in the fabric of our story on this planet. However, the discovery of such core antecedents of humanity in Europe at a very early date, perhaps matched by discoveries in the Republic of Georgia, raise significant doubts about "out of Africa" notions and reinstill an interestes in the parallel evolution of modern populations in different geographic situations. How close will we come to Carleton Coon's old notions of human evolution will be interesting to see.