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Sierra de Atapuerca (Spain)

Karst Cave System in the Atapuerca Inselberg


Karst Caves at Atapuerca

Karst Caves at Atapuerca

Main Entrance to Sierra de Atapuerca

Main Entrance to Sierra de Atapuerca

Xavier Estruch

The Sierra de Atapuerca is a small island mountain (inselberg) measuring about 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) long and 1-2 km (.6-1.2 mi) wide. Inside this mountain is an intricate set of multi-level caves created by millennia of erosion resulting from water level changes. The caves include some of the oldest human occupations in Europe, some dated to ~ 800,000 years ago.

Sierra de Atapuerca lies within an ancient karst topography region of northern Spain, about 14 km (9 mi) east of the modern town of Burgos. The plateau surface of the Upper Cretaceous period limestone and dolomite mountain stands about 960 meters above the surrounding plain, and geologists report that the labyrinth of passages and galleries of the cave began eroding out during the Pliocene.

Human Occupations

Several sites Paleolithic occupations are recorded within the site. The sites were found in two sectors of the cave system, the Trinchera del Ferrocarril (railway trench) and the Cueva Mayor (main cave).

The Trinchera del Ferrocarril is named that because the sites discovered in this region were discovered during trenching for a railway line. The most important sites in this part of Sierra de Atapuerca are Gran Dolina and Sima del Elefante. In the Main Cave section of the Atapuercas are numerous other sites, including the Sima de los Huesos and the Galeria del Silex.

Hominid fossils recovered from the Sierra de Atapuerca sites have been variously defined as Homo antecessor and H. heidelbergensis.

Locations within the Sierra de Atapuerca

  • Sima del Elefante (Lower and Middle Paleolithic occupations)
  • Gran Dolina
  • El Portalón (Bronze Age)
  • Galeria del Silo (Bronze Age engravings and paintings)
  • Galeria del Silex (Bronze Age funerary chamber)
  • Galeria Baja
  • La Trinchera
  • Sima de los Huesos (Lower / Middle Paleolithic)
  • Sala de los Ciclopes (Middle / Upper Pleistocene cave bear occupation)
  • Sala de las Oseras (Middle / Upper Pleistocene cave bear occupation)

The oldest occupied cave in the Atapuerca region is Gran Dolina, where the earliest fossil hominid of the type Homo erectus (or perhaps Homo antecessor) was found, dated perhaps as early as 886,000 years ago, making it among the oldest human occupations in Europe.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Arsuaga JL, Martínez I, Gracia A, Carretero JM, Lorenzo C, García N, and Ortega AI. 1997. Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). The site. Journal of Human Evolution 33(2–3):109-127.

Bermudez de Castro JM, Martinon-Torres M, Carbonell E, Sarmiento S, Rosas, Van der Made J, and Lozano M. 2004. The Atapuerca sites and their contribution to the knowledge of human evolution in Europe. Evolutionary Anthropology 13(1):25-41.

Carbonell E, Bermúdez de Castro JM, Parés JM, Pérez-González A, Cuenca-Bescós G, Ollé A, Mosquera M, Huguet R, van der Made J, Rosas A et al. 2008. The first hominin of Europe. Nature 452(7186):465-470.

Carbonell E, Esteban M, Martín Nájera A, Mosquera M, Rodríguez XP, Ollé A, Sala R, Vergès JM, Bermúdez de Castro JM, and Ortega AI. 1999. The Pleistocene site of Gran Dolina, Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain: a history of the archaeological investigations. Journal of Human Evolution 37:313–324.

Ortega AI, Benito-Calvo A, Porres J, Pérez-González A, and Martín Merino MA. 2010. Applying electrical resistivity tomography to the identification of endokarstic geometries in the Pleistocene Sites of the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain). Archaeological Prospection 17(4):233-245.


Also Known As: Sierra Atapuerca or Atapuerca

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