Spain in the Palaeolithic Age
For a long time it was argued that the climatic conditions in Europe were too hostile for any form of human habitation over 500.000 years ago. But the discovery in 1982 of fragments of human-like bones and flint pieces near the village of Orce (north east of Granada) dated at between 1.8 to 1.4 million years old, and the finding of hominid remains dating back some 1.2 million years at the Victoria Cave (Murcia) have caused archaeologists and palaeontologists to revise their views. Suddenly we are faced with the possibility of some form of human life existing in Europe over an age span three times longer than earlier calculated!
Another conventional thought was that the earliest hominid arrivals reached the Iberian peninsula having travelled out of Africa through the Middle East and then westward in an arc over central and southern Europe. The findings in these two sites in southern Spain of animal fossils of African origin suggest that the earliest Europeans may in fact have followed these animals across the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa, a feat that could have been achieved if –as has been argued– there was a decline in sea levels between 2.4 and 1.6 million years ago.
In 1994 the bones of six individuals dating back to between 780.000 and 850.000 years ago were found in the north, in the Gran Dolina Cave in the Sierra de Atapuerca region (a World Heritage site), just east of Burgos. Whether this signifies a northward migration of those hominids found at Orce and the Victoria Cave or whether they arrived through the Pyrenees is open to question. But they do seem to confirm that the settlement of Europe did occur prior to 500.000 years ago. Nearby, another site, the Sima de los Huesos (the Pit of Bones) has yielded some bone fragments of at least 32 individuals that go back some 400.000 years, not as far back as the above examples but still a long way from modern humans! It has been thought that because of the ordered placement of the bones, the site may be a burial place which, if true, would make the Sima de los Huesos one of our earliest pieces of evidence of a deliberately selected burial site. This in turn suggests the possibility of either ancestor worship or even belief in an afterlife.
The last generally recognised hominid group, Neanderthal man, brings us much closer to Homo sapiens. Neanderthal man is calculated to have flourished in Europe between 400.000 and 30.000 years ago and may indeed have coexisted briefly with early humans, who appear on the scene about 40.000 years ago.
Conventional thinking is that Neanderthal man reached the Iberian Peninsula via the Pyrenees and gradually spread southwards. Much later, about 40 to 35,000 years ago, early humans first appeared in the peninsula having probably followed a similar route through southern Europe and the Pyrenees. The discovery in 1994 at El Sidron cave near the village of Vallobal in Asturias of Neanderthal remains dating to 43,000 years ago, and another discovery in 1995 in the area of Zafarraya in the south of Spain (mid way between Malaga and Granada) of Neanderthal fragments going back 30,000 years have highlighted some interesting possibilities. The dates suggest that Neanderthals existed longer than previously calculated and that they coexisted with early humans longer than earlier thought. Recently (2006) it has been argued that Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar was the last refuge of the Neanderthals; they were still using the cave until approximately 28,000 years ago. However, the evidence is tentative and based not on Neanderthal fossils but on the types of artefacts associated with them: charcoal, stone knives and tools.
The fact that the youngest Neanderthal remains are found in the south of the Iberian peninsula suggests, for many, that the Neanderthals had been driven out of central Europe by the overwhelming superiority of the early humans and pushed towards the extremities of the continent. The Iberian Peninsula became for the Neanderthals the “end of the road,” as it were.
It is tempting to think that during a relatively brief overlapping period both groups crossbred but that is a controversial and unresolved matter; DNA tests in the 1990s show no evidence of cross breeding. Latest research supports this view, although there is now some speculation that Neanderthals may have had some form of speech (see BBC.co.uk Search Neanderthals, Feb 12 and 13, 2009)
An article on Neanderthal Man in the National Geographic (October 2008) has a lengthy discussion of the remains found in El Sidron Cave as well as observations on the artefacts found in Gorham's Cave.
November 2, 2011: Teeth and jaw bones found respectively in caves in Apulia (Italy) and Devon (England) “have been confirmed as the earliest known remains of Homo sapiens in Europe.” The baby teeth from the Grotta del Cavallo have been dated from 43,000 to 45,000 years old; the jawbone from Kents Cavern are calculated to be about 41,000 years old. The jawbone was unearthed in 1927 and the baby teeth in 1964, but only now --thanks to the precision of modern technology-- has their age been more accurately calculated. An interesting article can be found in http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15540464
For a more detailed description of the Atapuerca region, see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/989