Things They Never Told Me About Spanish History: Atapuerca

I can be a total idiot at times, but I’m not stupid.  I know many things were going on in the world tens of thousands of years ago and that Spain wasn’t going to be outdone.  It makes a lot of sense that there would be humans meandering about the plains and hills well before Scipio and his crew showed up, but, to be honest, if you don’t spend some time in this country, most of these details slip by your average foreigner’s common knowledge of the land.  You’d think Spain didn’t exist before El Cid galloped into Valencia.  It just ain’t right.


In my first years here when I did even less than what I do now, which isn’t much, I would spend hours of my day in my apartment with my roommates whiling our youth away.  In Spain, adolescence usually lasts until about the age of 30, so that 50% unemployment data which so alarmed the world during the worst of the most recent economic crisis, was not as abnormal as it appeared, especially back then.


My roommates worked, or at least tried to, in the movie industry, which meant they generally had plenty of free time on their hands.  One of them, Pepe, would spend his day waiting for the phone call of a lifetime and illuminate me on a whole bunch of things I had missed out on while I studied in the United States.  He spoke with a passion that many Spaniards do when they narrate the history of their country, and he clued me in on all sorts of dates, names, places, moments and events that marked Spain’s past.  I often ended up with the feeling that something had gone awfully wrong with the American educational system.  It was also when I realized for the first time (but certainly not the last) that there was another vision of Spanish history out there.  One that most of us from abroad were missing.


Take, for example, Atapuerca.  Over a glass of pacharán, Pepe once asked: “You’ve never heard of Atapuerca?”


“No.”  A normal response from just about anyone born in Connecticut and its surroundings.  “Why should I?”


The name “Atapuerca”, if taken literally, can mean “Tie up the pig”, which could have referred to one of those odd pre-Christian traditions you come across in the remote towns of Spain during their local fiestas.  After all, this is a country where people have been known to ride a horse by a rooster which is hanging by its legs upside down and try to yank it off…the results are as gruesome as one can imagine. This is a country where young men have been known on occasion to set their farts on fire in public for fun.  It’s a land of unusual festival customs, I can assure you.  But in this case, it happens to be, rather logically, a corruption of a Basque and Spanish word for mountain pass.  At least that’s the theory.


“Because you should.” replied Pepe.  “It’s one of those most important sites in the world.  Don’t you want to hear about it?”


Every time I heard the words “in the world”, I knew I was in for a new lesson, so there was no point in trying to stop him.  “Go ahead.”


Atapuerca is a set low hills northeast of Burgos, a great medieval city in the north of Spain.  It appears that people were aware of the proof of ancient hominin activity since the middle of the 19th Century, but when a railroad was built there during the 1890s, scholars began to realize just what they had in front of them.  As a rule, this is always bad news for anyone trying to carry out major construction, but it seems the two interests managed to live together peacefully for many years, until the train line went bankrupt altogether in 1917.  Then things got a lot more peaceful.


Atapuerca is pretty much a wet dream for any archeologist, anthropologist or paleontologist.  I mean, if you like really old things and possess a spade and a brush, this is the place for you.  Remains, remnants, vestiges, leftovers from a time so distant it makes some back in the States uncomfortable.  From way before even the appearance of homo sapiens.  That makes them even more uneasy.


There you can basically the oldest and most extensive hominin excavation in Western Europe.  And it’s still not over.  Much of what has been found revolves around a relative of ours known as the homo antecessor, and another called the homo heidelbergensis.  These may not be household names, but suffice it to say that they managed to survive for far longer than we have so far.   Recently a tooth emerged from the depths which has been dated at 1.2 million years old.  Another molar was discovered in the south of Spain and apparently ekes it out by about 100,000 years.  I don’t know about you, but this must be the source of extreme silent frustration for competing field workers.


Silence is also the trademark of this undertaking.  Or at least inconspicuousness.  No Sunday evening highlights show featuring the bone chip find of the week.  Their 15 minutes of fame, however, did come in the late 90s from an item of news that naturally grabbed headlines.  Some of these peoples were cannibals.  In the very least, they dabbled in the practice.  There is also evidence that they believed in formal burials.  I guess they just enjoyed to nibble a little on their next of kin before final resting.

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