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Author Topic: 'First European tooth' unearthed  (Read 95 times)
Description: Western Europe's "oldest human fossil remain"
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« on: June 30, 2007, 09:47:54 AM »

Scientists in Spain say that they have found a tooth from a distant human ancestor that is more than one million years old.

The tooth - a molar - was discovered on Wednesday at the Atapuerca site in northern Spain's Burgos Province.

The foundation said it was awaiting final results before publishing its findings in a scientific journal.

'Oldest European'
Several caves containing evidence of prehistoric human occupation have been found in Atapuerca.

In 1994 fossilised remains called Homo antecessor - believed to date back 800,000 years - were unearthed there.

Scientists had previously thought that Homo heidelbergensis, dating back 600,000 years, were Europe's oldest inhabitants.

Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, co-director of research at the site, said that the newly-discovered tooth could be as much as 1.2 million years old.

"Now we finally have the anatomical evidence of the hominids that fabricated tools more than one million years ago," the statement said.

It was not yet possible to confirm to which species the tooth belonged, it said, but initial analyses "allow us to suppose it is an ancestor of Homo antecessor".

Mr Bermudez de Castro said that the tooth appeared to come from an individual aged between 20 and 25.

"There is no doubt, from the (geological) level where the tooth was found, that it belonged to the oldest European found to date," the French news agency AFP quoted him as saying.

Engravings in the Galer�a del Silex
large panel of paintings and engravings in the Galer�a del Silex, drawn more than 4,000 years ago

The Sierra de Atapuerca
The Cueva Mayor, a cave situated barely half a kilometer from the Trinchera, was already known since at least the 15th century, according to historical evidence. In the interior of the cave there is an inscription left by Friar Manuel Ruiz, with a date of october 22, 1645. In 1863, Felipe Ari�o solicited the deed to the property around the cave, to prevent its deterioration, and in this same year the first notice of human remains was announced in a nearby cave, the Cueva Ciega. By 1868, there is already an official guide, Ram�n Incl�n, and the Cueva Mayor was discovered by science. In this year, the "Descripci�n con Planos de la Cueva llamada de Atapuerca" was published by the mining engineers Pedro Sampayo and Mariano Zuazn�var, with illustrations by Isidro Gil. Around 1880, an industrialist from Valladolid was reported to the police for stealing a load of stalactites and stalagmites from the Cueva Mayor, which were seized and placed in two public holdings, one in Burgos and one in Valladolid. In 1890, Ram�n Incl�n petitions to carry out mining prospections inside the cave, and, among the documentation, he attached plans in which, for the first time, a small bend in the cave appears called �the silo�, which is the present day Sima de los Huesos.

cave art which presides over the Portal�n of Cueva Mayor

In 1910, the archaeologist Jes�s Carballo discovered the Bronze Age site and the paintings in the mouth of the Cueva Mayor, known as the Portal�n. This site was studied from 1911-1912 and piqued the interest of some of the most important archaeologists of the time. The site was visited and studied by the Abbe Henri Breuil (one of the fathers of the study of rock art in France) and by Hugo Obermeier, author of �El Hombre F�sil� (1926). These researchers were especially interested in the rock art, especially the horse head in the entrance to Cueva Mayor. In 1925-1930, J. Mart�nez-Santaolalla included the Portal�n in his study of the Neolithic in Burgos, but historical factors led to a paralysis of the research in the Sierra and nothing more was done for decades.

The 1950�s saw renewed activity in Atapuerca. The Grupo Espeleol�gico Edleweiss (GEE) of Burgos, began to map and catalog the caves in the region in detail, including Cueva Mayor. In 1962, members of the GEE reported the existence of fossils in the Trinchera del Ferrocarril to the authorities. In 1963, Basilio Osaba collected samples in the Trinchera and found a handaxe which he assigned to the Acheulean. In 1964 and 1966, Francisco Jord� carried out excavations in the Trinchera and in Cueva Mayor which led to the first estimation of the antiquity of the sites in the Trinchera. Based on the faunal analysis done by Juan Francisco Villalta, an age of 500,000 years ago was estimated. In 1958, Narciso S�nchez, of the Instituto Paleontol�gico de Sabadell, sent by Miguel Crusafont, collected samples in the Trinchera.

In 1972, the GEE discovered the Galer�a del S�lex, a sidebranch from the Cueva Mayor which contained a prehistoric sancturary with archaeological remains from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The site was intact since a collapse of the ceiling had sealed the cave in the remote past. The work undertaken revealed ceramic vessels which were intentionally broken in narrow corners of the cave, burials in areas which were nearly inaccessible, a wall constructed as a safety barrier around a pit where the bodies of two accidental victims were found...There was also evidence of the exploitation of flint, a type of rock which has excellent qualities for making stone tools. Further, on the wall, there were large panels of paintings and engravings, which are interpreted as evidence that the place was used as a sanctuary. Due to the importance of the discovery, the regional government of Burgos closed off access to the cave with a metal gate. Since 1973, the area has been a training ground for the army, and a series of problems arose because the military authorities were using the Trinchera as a testing ground for explosives. At that time, the GEE, trying to avoid the area from being expropriated by the nearby municipality of Ibeas de Juarros, solicited the protection of all the sites and their declaration as a Historic/Artistic Monument.

In 1973, Juan Mar�a Apell�niz began his study of the Galer�a del S�lex and the Portal�n of Cueva Mayor in collaboration with the speleologists from the GEE. At the time, the mining engineer Trinidad Torres, who was studying fossil bears from the Spanish Pleistocene, also studied remains from Atapuerca in Sabadell, which had been brought there after the clandestine expedition undertaken by Narciso S�nchez in 1968. Torres was in contact with the GEE in 1975, and in 1976 undertook an excavation in the Sierra. At the time, he was working on his doctoral thesis on Pleistocene bears, especially those known as Cave Bears, which had not been studied much in Spain.

Human mandible
AT-1, the first human fossil identified from the Sima de los Huesos

Trinidad Torres, with permission from Apell�niz, entered the Sima de los Huesos in search of bear remains. Among the bones removed from the Sima, several mandibular fragments appeared which were clearly not from a bear. They were human fossils, and were an exceptional find since, judging by the bear bones, the site was known to date to the remote past. The mandible, AT-1, together with two more mandiblular fragments (AT-2 and AT-3) as well as a handful of teeth and two cranial fragments, were the first human remains from the Sierra de Atapuerca. Torres took the mandible to his doctoral advisor, the paleontologist Emiliano Aguirre. The form of the mandible suggested a great antiquity. Further, the morphology of the bears placed the site within the Middle Pleistocene. At that time, and even today, European sites with human fossils from such an early time period could be counted with the fingers on one hand.
Tags: spain archaeology prehistory Atapuerca 
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