“Atapuerca? Oh yes, that village where so many old people live”. The joke, a classic in Burgos, the provincial capital closest to the most important archaeological and paleontological site in the world in the north of Castile, is justified with a single figure: the 1.2 million years of the remains of its first inhabitants, the oldest Europeans we yet know of. Their names and surnames? Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo sapiens.
As in any good village, the villagers’ nicknames are everywhere: Miguelón‘s skull (in honour of the five times champion of the Tour de France Miguel Induráin) and Elvis the pelvis (from the King of rock 'n' roll) or Excalibur (in honour to King Arthur's sword), an unused double-edged cutting weapon which transports us to the romantic and philosophical idea that man has been concerned with life after death for thousands of years. They have been there forever (or nearly, at least) and although digs were made throughout the 20th century, it wasn't until the 1990s when we became fully aware of the treasure that the lime and sandstone were hiding in the Sierra de Atapuerca, and which have deservedly rewarded the area with the title of UNESCO Heritage of Mankind since 2000.
The site is not only for professionals. A visit to Atapuerca allows us to experience with our own hands how our ancestors got by. We are taught to cut flint, to make a fire by rubbing wood together and hunting with a bow and arrow. But don't think there is no space left for more creative activities… you can even try cave painting using natural pigments!
Obviously the activities exclude the cannibalism of our Neanderthal ancestors, but for those not particularly interested in human beings, there are remains of elephants, rhinoceros and cats such as the sabre-toothed tiger (popular thanks to films such as Ice Age). In the past, all of these exotic or extinct animals were as common in Europe as pigeons and seagulls are today.
And the best thing is that Atapuerca seems to have no end. Eudald Carbonell, the most widely known anthropologist of those working on the site firmly says that “the best of Atapuerca is yet to be discovered”. We already know that old people always have a lot to say.