Freelance Spain
The First Europeans

Two sites in Spain yield traces of the first men in Europe.

On March 3 1848 the skull of woman was discovered in a quarry in Gibraltar. It was known to be very old and it was shaped somewhat differently from a "normal" skull, but not much attention was paid to it at the time.
Then, eight years later, a team of quarry workers in the Neander Valley of Germany unearthed a similar skull. This time, experts began to suspect that it could have belonged to a hitherto unknown race of humans, or perhaps even be the "missing link" between apes and modern man. In any case, the Neander find got all the credit, for the race was to be known henceforth as Neanderthal Man.

Excavation at the Orce site in southern SpainExcavations during the intervening century-and-a-half have taught us more about this race of prehistoric humans which roamed Europe between 250,000 and 30,000 BC, when they mysteriously vanished, probably crowded out by our own ancestors. Gibraltar and southern Iberia were their final refuge. Today, paleontologists are delving into two of their last dwelling places, the caves of Zafarraya in Málaga and Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar (named after one Captain Gorham, who discovered the site in 1907), to find out more about the twilight years of the Neanderthals and perhaps explain the mystery of their disappearance.
These early humans had short limbs and thick bodies adapted to a colder climate, but they were by no means grunting brutes. The Neanderthals, whose brains were larger than ours, moved in groups of up to thirty individuals. They were hunters, which implies team work, which in turn implies some form of communication. They used fire for heat, they made crafted tools, they looked after the sick or weak members of the clan, and they observed ceremonies for their dead. On the other hand, on occasion they practiced cannibalism.
But they were to prove no match for the predecessors of modern man (sometimes called Cromagnons), who made their appearance in Europe around 40,000 years ago. These upstarts were more efficient at organizing hunts, communicating, seeking shelter, they were better craftsman and they wore textile clothes in addition to animal skins.


The presence of prehistoric man in southern Iberia goes back much further than the Neanderthals, perhaps even further than anyone suspected until now. Excavations at the Atapuerca site in Burgos, central Spain, have revealed evidence of human habitation dating back 800,000 years, claimed to be the earliest human traces ever found in western Europe.
The first discoveries of prehistoric animal remains occurred during construction on a railway line in 1899, but it wasn't until the 1970s that a Madrid paleontologist identified some of the bones from the site as having belonged to prehistoric humans. Work on the site began in earnest in 1984. The importance of Atapuerca lies not only in the age of the remains, but in the fact that they span hundreds of thousands of years of continued habitation, and are revealing innumerable details of how Europe’s first dwellers lived.
And according to Juan Luis Arsuaga, one of the directors of the dig, only a fraction of what the site has to offer has been uncovered so far.

But the early man of Atapuerca has a rival in southern Spain. In 1982, three Catalan archaeologists headed by Professor José Gibert were digging near the dusty village of Orce, in the province of Granada, when they came across an unusual bone fragment. A year later, they announced that the fragment had belonged to a human child. They even suggested the cause of death: the child had been devoured by a hyena. Furthermore, they claimed that it was 1.7 million years old.
Bone fragment discovered in Orce, SpainThus "Orce Man" was born, unleashing an unholy row in the scientific community, for if Gibert’s claims were true it would have meant rewriting the history books, as the original humans (homo erectus) aren’t supposed to have arrived in Europe from Africa until around 1.5 million years ago at the earliest.
Rival experts were quick to dismiss Gibert’s find as nonsense. Some assured that the fragment - nicknamed La Galleta, "the cookie" - was not human at all, but had belonged to a prehistoric predecessor of the horse. Even Gibert’s two co-discoverers later admitted they were probably mistaken about the fragment’s nature.

Undeterred, Gibert has continued to excavate in the Orce region, trying to uncover further evidence to back his claim. Meanwhile, other teams from the universities of Granada and Málaga are also working in the area, with some 40 archaeologists in the field each summer. They don’t want to even hear mention of La Galleta - which does indeed resemble a child’s first attempt to make a chocolate chip cookie - because all the controversy and jokes about "Orce Man" only serve to discredit any new finds. However, aside from animal fossils, some of which are four million years ago, the Orce site has yielded stone tools of unquestionable human manufacture which are at least one million years old, and probably older. That is, they predate the finds in Atapuerca.

Copyright © Mark Little
Photography by J D Dallet

See also: 
"Heaven can wait" by Robert Latona, about Queen Isabel.
"The First Europeans" by Mark Little.
"Royal Centennial" by Mark Little, about King Carlos I.

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