Freelance Spain
Spaniards for the 21st Century

Juan Luis Arsuaga
Paleontologist and co-director of the Atapuerca dig.

Paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga joined the team at Atapuerca, in the province of Burgos, in 1982. In 1991 he became co-director of the team, which is researching one of the the richest paleontological sites in Europe, containing evidence of human population spanning 800,000 years. In 1997 he and his co-directors Eudald Carbonell and José María Bermúdez were awarded Spain's top honor for scientific research, the Principe de Asturias prize. He lectures in universities in Spain and abroad. An associate editor of the Journal of Human Evolution, he has published in numerous journals in Spain and abroad, and is author of several books on Atapuerca and paleontology.

Although the existence of the Atapuerca cave had been known for a long time, it was during construction on a railway line in 1899 that the first traces were unearthed.  But it wasn't until the 1970s that a Madrid paleontologist identified bones from the site as having belonged to prehistoric humans. Work on the site began in earnest in 1984.

The finds at Atapuerca have shed new light on the first humans in Europe, and how they lived. Although there are countless sites in Spain, few are as large or as comprehensive in scope as Atapuerca, and Arsuaga insists that only a fraction of what it has to offer has been uncovered so far.

Arsuaga was born in Madrid of Basque parents in 1959. As a child he already showed a keen interest in prehistory, a passion fueled by reading the book "Quest for Fire" and visiting digs near Bilbao. A Biology graduate, he is currently Professor of Paleontology at the Complutense University in Madrid.

Although Arsuaga is just one of a team of prominent specialists working at the site, he is the one with the highest profile, and is frequently quoted in the media concerning the Atapuerca dig. He seems to be acutely aware of the importance of PR to promote his team's work, delivering lectures, running a personal website (, writing books aimed at a general audience, and otherwise turning Atapuerca into a household name and a fashionable project to channel funding into. Atapuerca, for instance, encourages visits from those seriously interested in the subject. This contrasts with the secretive atmosphere surrounding the paleontological site near Orce, in southern Spain, which has yielded tools indicating human presence that predate the finds at Atapuerca (they are at least 1 million years old) but which is generally neglected by the media.

Copyright © Mark Little


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