The Atapuerca sites and their contribution to the knowledge of human evolution in Europe



Over the last two decades, the Pleistocene sites of the Sierra de Atapuerca (Spain) have provided two extraordinary assemblages of hominin fossils that have helped refine the evolutionary story of the genus Homo in Europe. The TD6 level of the Gran Dolina site has yielded about one hundred remains belonging to a minimum of six individuals of the species Homo antecessor. These fossils, dated to the end of the Lower Pleistocene (800 kyr), provide the earliest evidence of hominin presence in Western Europe. The origin of these hominins is unknown, but they may represent a speciation event from Homo ergaster/Homo erectus. The TD6 fossils are characterized by a significant increase in cranial capacity as well as the appearance of a “sapiens” pattern of craniofacial architecture. At the Sima de los Huesos site, more than 4,000 human fossils belonging to a minimum of 28 individuals of a Middle Pleistocene population (ca. 500–400 kyr) have been recovered. These hominins document some of the oldest evidence of the European roots of Neanderthals deep in the Middle Pleistocene. Their origin would be the dispersal out of Africa of a hominin group carrying Mode 2 technologies to Europe. Comparative study of the TD6 and Sima de la Huesos hominins suggests a replacement model for the European Lower Pleistocene population of Europe or interbreeding between this population and the new African emigrants.