Ancient history

The oldest human face found in Europe is in Atapuerca

The first days of the month of July 2022 will form part of the history of the field of human evolution. The excavations at level TE7 of the Sima del Elefante cave site have surprised us with an exceptional find. This is the partial face of a human being , whose age may be around 1.4 million years . For a couple of decades, and thanks to the findings at level TD6 of the Gran Dolina cave site, members of the scientific community have debated the most coherent evolutionary model to explain the origin of the modern face.

Homo antecessor , whose antiquity has been estimated at 850,000 years, presents the oldest modern face recorded to date in the history of mankind. But when did a countenance like ours emerge? Now, and thanks to the new discovery in Atapuerca, we will have a unique opportunity to advance in the answer to this question.

One ​​of the objectives of the current excavation campaign was to continue the work on the upper part of level TE7 of the Sima del Elefante that began in 2021. The importance of intervening in This area lies in its position, close to one of the main entrances of the cavity, since the levels previously excavated in this site have shown that in this area the diversity and abundance of recovered remains has always been higher than in the rest of the site.

Thus, since the beginning of this campaign We have worked in this place. On June 30, Edgar Téllez, a member of the Atapuerca Research Team, found different bone remains wrapped in clay from level TE7 in K29 of Sima del Elefante. After cleaning them and being analyzed by several team specialists, we have been able to confirm that these remains corresponded to a human maxilla.

The human fossil from Sima del Elefante has been found approximately two meters below the mandible obtained in 2007 at level TE9, and which was assigned to Homo sp . –species indeterminate due to lack of conclusive data–. It is very likely that the new fossil from the Sima del Elefante is related to that jaw and that belongs to one of the first populations that colonized Europe. If so, we can finally determine the identity of the human species of the Sima del Elefante. In addition, we will be able to make a detailed comparison between the new face found in the Sima del Elefante with that of Homo antecessor and delve into the origin of the species named 25 years ago by the Atapuerca Research Team.

Geological samples are already being obtained to estimate the age of the new human fossil from TE7, which will be processed at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH) from Burgos. Likewise, several pieces of lithic industry and faunal remains with evidence of consumption by humans associated with this finding will be analyzed at the Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) of Tarragona. The determination of the fossil species of vertebrates obtained at this level will give us a very precise image of the climatic conditions and the ecosystem in which the first settlers of Europe lived.