Hot on the heels of the recent discovery of a 1.2 million (?) year-old tooth at Atapuerca, comes this news of skull fragments dating to 500,000 bp, and found in the Sima de los Huesos, the cave of bones’, better known for the finds of fossilised remains of around 30 individuals, at the bottom of a deep shaft, and dating to about 300,000 bp or earlier. This latest find is of cranial material belonging to what is believed to have been an adolescent female. The linked articles are in Spanish, and although I can translate some of it, my initial reading of the story failed to pick up the salient points, and it was only when someone at Anthro-L thoughtfully corrected my errors that I realised that this was a couple of new finds, rather than referring to the earlier discovery of the tooth a week or so ago. Here’s what was relayed to me at Anthro-L…

To quote (in translation): “two parietal fragments and one frontal have been identified, all [3] of great size….” Two tiny middle ear bones have also been found with the skull fragments.

I then found that Google Translate was able to offer something in the way of an interpretation, and from here on in, I’ve referred to their version of this story. We hear from Luis Arsuaga, who appears to be saying that this is an important find because there are very few remains from 500k bp, and it constitutes more material of this type than has been found in Europe over the last 30 years *(specifically, the frontal elements found here, rather than in the past when only material from the main cranial vault had been found – I think). He also believes that the ear bones will cast light on the erstwhile owners’ ability to speak – there is still much debate as to when archaic humans began speaking, although it’s my guess that by this time of 500k bp, people had probably been speaking for hundreds of thousands of years.

There is mention of a lower premolar tooth found at Sima del Elefante, dating to 800,000 bp, which seems to coincide with the level TD-6, at which the other 800,000 year-old remains were found in Gran Dolina, another component of the Atapuerca site. The named species here is Homo antecessor, and they seem to be saying they were the earliest hominids in Europe, although there have been suggestions from the south at Orce, and Cueva de Victoria, dating to possibly 1.3 million years and more, which have been variously assumed to be either Homo habilis or Homo erectus.

The final word from the site appears to imply that the recently discovered Homo antecessor fragments dating to 800,000 bp in Gran Dolina adds evidence to earlier finds that cannibalism was practised there – over a period of hundreds of years, rather than as a one-off event as previously speculated. The victims appear to have been young, and there is mention that incoming outsiders may have fallen victim to this – though there is an implication that there was a cultural rather than merely utilitarian intention at work here – please see this article from 2006

The most recent finds were made right at the end of the current season of excavations, which over the years, has proved a curiously consistent stage of important discoveries. The teeth will be properly written up in the early months of next year, no word of when the skull fragments will be properly analysed, but I imagine that would be sooner rather than later.

There is mention that research at Atapuerca has in the past been restricted to one month a year, but there are hopes that this will increase to 3 or 4 months – which judging by the rate they’re pulling remains from the ground, sounds like a good idea. They make reference to Neanderthals, by describing them as the only archaic species of (European) archaic Homo not to have been found at Atapuerca.

There is also a hint from Eudald Carbonell that Atapuerca may be evidence for Europe as potentially having been a region, along with Africa and Asia, that gave birth to its own separate species of archaic Homo – a somewhat radical view, and I’ll try and track down a paper on the subject, if indeed he has written one.

This post may be subject to yet further amendments, but hopefully most of my earlier errors have now been corrected – apologies for the rather garbled nature of this post, it’s been one of those days.

n.b. I can’t get the image to display properly, so for the time being please access the linked story at Diario de Mallorca, where there is an expandable picture of the cranial fragments.

Google translation here or try: Google Translate beta

(via Anthro-L – thanks to Weyert de Boer for the heads-up, and Phil Young for the translation)