Published in Sphynx Magazine Notebooks of Culture Number 19. December 2001

Juan Luis Arsuaga, Professor of Human Paleonthology of the Geological Sciences Faculty at Complutense University in Madrid, very kindly bestowed upon Sphinx Magazine the interview we´re offering you now.
JMSE: When was the Atapuerca site discovered?
 The Atapuerca Prehistoric Site has been known since XIX century, at the dawn of Prehistory as a science, because there´s in the area a cave called ´Cueva Mayor´, and inside one of its inner walls they found a very old painting depicting a horse, whose antiquity has been impossible to date, but it always drew their attention.
In 1910, several researchers and the most eminent specialists on Prehistory of that time travelled to Burgos so as to study it and later on, some American paleonthologists set up a prospecting ground in the ´Cueva Mayor´. Then, some Spanish archaeologists made other prospecting grounds on the ´Railway Trench´, which had cut the prehistoric sites, rendering them visible.
And in 1978, the team of paleonthologists made up by Eudald Carbonell, José María Bermúdez de Castro, me and many other collaborators arrived at the zone.
The local speleology group reported us about the findings and from then on, we began digging the Chasm of the Bones, the ´Cueva Mayor´, the ´Railway Trench´ Prehistoric Sites, and so forth.
JMSE: Which was the reason for the huge gathering of bodies found inside the ´Chasm of the Bones´?
JLA: We have found human fossils on three different prehistoric sites, above all in two of them. The ´Great Dolina´ one is 800,000 years old and the ´Chasm of the Bones´one dates back to 300,000 years ago.
At that period, the habit of burial didn´t exist, so human fossils aren´t usually found inside the caves. Prehistoric men went through the caverns but they didn´t bury their dead.
Therefore, when any human remains turn up, they´re usually fragments which could perhaps fall inside the grotto, dragged or transported by any carnivore. And they use to be very poor prehistoric sites.
But in this case, we have got a vast amount of pieces of skeletons found in both prehistoric sites and it is due to the fact that two anomalous circumstances have happened: in the 800,000 years old prehistoric site, a cannibalism act took place and in the 300,000 years old one, a great and intentional buildup of bodies occurred.
JMSE: Do the discoveries made in Atapuerca definitely confirm the existence of the Homo Antecessor in Europe, very previously to the Neandertal Man?
JLA: Utterly. Unlike what was firstly thought, the Neandertal Man isn´t a very archaic evolutive human link, but a modern species in human evolution and he extinguished relatively recently, in geological terms around 28,000 years ago.
The Homo Antecessor is a different species, a very remote forebear, common both to Neandertals and the current Homo Sapiens.
While the Homo Antecessor lived in Europe, in the far East lived the Homo Erectus, another different species. The Pitecantropus Erectus from Java and the Sinantropus Pekinensis from China are an Asiatic branch of human evolution, unlike the European and African ones, that are more interrelated.
JMSE: Which were the animal species dwelling the Atapuerca Range and Arlanzón River at that period and how did the Homo Antecessor hunt his preys?
JLA: Remnants of hippopotami, beavers, mammoths, some species of rhinoceri, bisons, uruses, horses, all kind of Cervidae ( including the big horned megaceri ), etc.
Likewise, an enormous variety of carnivores: different species of bears, wolves, jaguars, lions, sabretoothed tigers, lynxes, etc.
At this time, human beings weren´t able to kill at a distance. They didn´t know either the bow or the arrows and propellents and they were bound to hunt at point-blank range by means of thick sharpened sticks, so they were very sturdy.

JMSE: How was physically the Homo Antecessor, more alike the primates or similar to current man?

JLA: From neck downwards like us, with a height similar to ours, but much wider and stronger, with a weight about 90 kg. At this period, 800,000 years ago, human evolution has been 4 million years on the go. The modern human biotype, with our physical build, our body proportions and to sum up, our aspect, appears approximately 2 million years ago. And prior to it we have what has been described as ´biped chimpanzees´.
Inside the Chasm of the Bones we have come across the only existing complete pelvis of human evolution, with which we´ve been able to accurately verify the huge strength and power of these hominids. Notwithstanding, their facial features still showed some differences with the current homo sapiens: they didn´t have a chin and their superciliary arches were very developed. They were primitive human beings, but already human.
JMSE: Neither remnants nor traces of fire have been found. What´s the explanation for this?
JLA: Fire is not important in human evolution until a much later time. It isn´t imperative to survive. And at that prehistoric age, it wasn´t used for feeding, since only in much more recent times food began to be prepared and cooked. Meat can be consumed raw, in the same way as vegetables.
JMSE: What can be expected in future in so far as the Atapuerca Prehistoric Site? Are there many things to discover yet?
JLA: Regarding the prehistoric sites we already know, we´ll learn a lot of more things within the next twenty or twenty-five years, but besides, there are two new prehistoric sites on which we´re starting to work and whose results will be revealed in two generations´ time.
At present, there´s a great quantity of available information, the fruit of more than thirty years´ work, and the steadily evolving technology will perhaps enable us, in not a very distant time, to make a machine reproducing with high fidelity the sounds emitted by the primitive human inhabitants of Atapuerca.
Interview and Pictures made by José Manuel Serrano Esparza.

© Copyright José Manuel Serrano Esparza