Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Museums: The Oldest Europeans Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Lisa Hunter

Paleontologists often remark that they don't study things that are dead, but rather things that were once alive. The distinction is made clear in a new exhibition, The First Europeans: Treasures from the Hills of Atapuerca, at the American Museum of Natural History until April 13. The show highlights one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the past quarter century--the oldest-known hominids in Western Europe. Their exquisitely preserved fossils, uncovered in the Atapuerca region of northern Spain, are those of an 800,000-year-old species (Homo antecessor) that may be ancestral to both Neandertals and Homo sapiens.

Exhibited for the first time outside Spain, these fossils are shown in a larger evolutionary context, alongside casts of early African and Asian hominids, as well as one of a complete Neandertal skeleton. The fossil-rich Atapuerca region has also been home to a succession of hominid species for the past million years.

A 300,000-year-old skull (below) from Sima de los Huesos, a site in the Spanish region of Atapuerca, is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History alongside the first complete reconstruction of a Neandertal skeleton (right).

(©1999 Javier Trueba)

(©American Museum of Natural History)

One focus of the exhibition is a site called Sima de los Huesos (or "bone pit"), an unusual accumulation of hominid and animal remains that may be the earliest evidence of funerary practices (see "Faces From the Past," May/June 1997). What's more, the ages of the interred hominids, some of whom were in their prime, suggest that something catastrophic happened, perhaps a famine.

An even more gruesome discovery was the earliest evidence of cannibalism. The remains of six hominids at a site called Gran Dolina have marks of systematic butchering. (The exhibition places them next to examples of butchered animal bones for comparison.) According to Juan Luis Arsuaga, one of the Atapuerca paleontologists, their flesh "was cut and sliced from the bone by other if they had been game animals captured for their meat--a chillingly unhuman act, or perhaps a chillingly human act, since we know of no similar behavior among other primates."

Arsuaga's newly translated book, The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002; $25.95), gives a thrilling first-person account of the Atapuerca excavations. Arsuaga has a gift for imagining the lives behind the bones, though the book is often tough going, full of scientific jargon, and the narrative--like the branching hominid family tree--sometimes meanders into dead ends.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America