The part of Atapuerca we saw was along the railway cut. In the late 1800s railroads were built to bring iron ore and coal to Bilbao. One of the feeder lines went through the Sierra de Atapuerca. In addition to the iron ore and coal, this spur may have also brought limestone for buildings, some possibly used to build the foundries and bridge arches constructed at the same time. The railway spur cut through the Sierra de Atapuerca was 15 meters deep. It exposed ancient caves that had collapsed. At the time their importance wasn’t realized. We visited the area along the railway cut which contains three important archaeological sites: Sima del Elefante, Galería-Covacha de los Zapazos complex and Gran Dolina.
Sima del Elefante (Elephant Pit) was dissected by the railway cut. It is a complex area due to the diverse way the sediments filled the site and the fact that it was cut through by the railway. The cave was named for a tooth thought to belong to an elephant that was found there. It turned out the the tooth belonged to a rhinoceros. Now you know why it pays to be cautious with your naming! Sima del Elefante contains the earliest cave occupation sites in Sierra de Atapuerca and is where the oldest human remains (at least 1 million years old) in Europe have been found. (According to the “Illustrated Guide to Atapuerca” which is licensed under Creative Commons so it doesn’t have a copyright date, but appears it was published in 2014.)
Galería complex is the middle site along the railway cut. It was the first to have excavations started (in the 1980s). Remains from Homo heidelbergensis were found here in 1976, possibly 500,000 years old. One part of the complex may have been a natural pit that was deep enough to kill animals that fell into it. Apparently there was a “back entrance” where carnivores and hominids could get in. The supposition is that the humans carved off legs of the fallen (and now dead) animals and took them back to another, safer cave. By doing this, they were able to grab some of the meat before the large carnivores and competitors got it. The other cave was more protected and they could defend, deflesh, and consume the animals. This other place is another part of the Galería complex and the herbivore bones found there are almost exclusively leg bones.
Gran Dolina was the final cave that we visited. The railway cut destroyed the outer part of this cave. This cave contains an instance of magnetic reversal 780,000 years ago which very effectively dates the layers above and below it. A magnetic reversal is when there is a change in the earth’s magnetic field – magnetic north and magnetic south change positions. I’m not sure how you spot this, but I know how you prove it (at a particular spot) and what it looks like microscopically. But digging in a pit??? Maybe you just know (from other things) that you might be getting close. At any rate, Gran Dolina also contained fossils from Homo antecessor. This discovery moved back the first human groups in Europe to 800,000 YBP. At the time of the find, it was believed that humans had been in Europe only since 500,000 YBP. (Only?).
There is a nice visitor’s center well before you go into the site. As Atapuerca receives more visitors, they are well positioned to handle the crowds. There are several topographical displays of the area: one showing the railway cut. The site is able to produce their energy needs with solar arrays, which should tell you something about the location – very much in the open.
Altamira…One of the most famous caves. There is a wonderful museum and a reconstructed cave (opened in 2001) to visit. Both are wonderfully done. Altamira is famous for the paintings on the roof of the cave. The floor as found in 1868 was so high that an adult had to stoop to move through the cave. Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was looking for bones and other artifacts on the floor accompanied by his 8-year old daughter. As you can guess, the child did not have to stoop and was looking around when she found the paintings on the roof. The roof is covered with a herd of bison in various positions that use the bumps and lumps of the ceiling to shape and define the animals. The floor has been lowered and is so depicted in the reconstruction of the cave so that people can get a good view of the ceiling. There are also depictions of horses, deer, and lines or figures. There is a long, narrow section known as the Horse’s Tail. When you are leaving the Horse’s Tail, you can see an area where the natural rock shapes where turned into “masks” by adding eyes and a few other details.
The earliest work at Altamira has been dated to 36,000 BCE, while some of the latest on the painted ceiling have been radiocarbon dated from 14,820 to 13,130 years ago. It is believed that the cave was blocked shortly after this period.
We visited the caves of El Castillo and Las Monedas by dividing into two smaller groups. The caves are located near the village of Puente Viesgo in Santander Province. Our guide to the sites was Pilar Garcia Díaz.
El Castillo cave is well known for engravings on deer shoulder blades that were found in the paleolithic deposits at the cave mouth. They are now in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid. The cave itself is divided into two parts that are separated by huge blocks jumbled together. There were two narrow passages that linked these two parts. It is considered a “multiple sanctuary” because the deposits at the cave entrance span the entire paleolithic. The cave art includes horses, bison, ibex and deer, both as engravings and drawings. In addition to the mineral drawings which can’t be dated, there are charcoal bison that have been radiocarbon dated to 11,110 and 10,960 BCE. There are over 50 red hands with at least 35 of them being left hands. Often associated with these hands are red dots of various sizes. The dots are also found associated with many lines.
Las Monedas is also located in the same hill (as are two other caves, La Pasiega and Las Chimeneas which are not open). It was originally called Cueva de los Osos (Cave of the Bears) after cave bear bones found there. The current name comes from some 15th century coins found in a deep shaft. Their reason for being there is unknown, but there were 23 silver and copper coins in a pouch. The cave contains many geologically significant concretions, stalagmites, and mineral colors. There is fossilized mud that reaches to the ceilings. The flooding at various times has worn smooth different levels of the cave roof. It is thought that the art of Las Monedas was produced by one person. It was done in charcoal and is in a small narrow passage. There are signs or abstract marks when you first enter. A little way later is the most famous figures of the cave: a horse and a reindeer. They are drawn on the same surface but vertically and are back to back. The reindeer is one of the best found. This area of Spain would have been one of the most southerly areas of the reindeer. Additionally there are drawings further down the passage and into a small chamber at the end. The charcoal drawings have been dated to about 12,000 years ago.
Isturitz and Oxocelhaya are two caves, one over top of the other. These caves are located in the Gaztelu hill, which also contains a third cave, Erberua, that is not open at this time. The Isturitz is the uppermost cave with the Oxocelhaya below it (and the Erberua below that). Isturitz is best known for its archaeology and at least 80,000 years of human presence, spanning the Middle Palaeolitic (Neanderthal Man) to the Upper Palaeolithic (Homo Sapiens) and I suppose on to today. Oxocelhaya is known for its geological formations. It, too, has cave art and engravings but they are only shown for special occasions. A tunnel connects the two caves now so you can move from one cave to the other inside.
After visiting the caves, we traveled into Spain and on to the village of Santillana del Mar where we stayed at the Parador de Santillana Gil Blas.