An archaeological treasure

Date of World Heritage Declaration: November 30th, 2000.
Site: Atapuerca Mountain Range
Location: Burgos
Opening hours for Visitors: depending on the time of the year. More info on:
( Fares: Standard ticket: 6 euros. Reduced Price: 5 euros (kids between 8 and 16 years of age) and free of charge for kids under 8 years.

Technical Specifications

Right on the Camino de Santiago, and not too far off Burgos city, we can find/lays the Atapuerca Archeological Site, an outstanding finding which we can only imagine its actual size.

The Atapuerca Archeological Site was declared World Heritageby the UNESCO back in the year 2000, after being recognized as a vital model to be studied when analyzing Human Evolution. Over the last few years, this Site has gained a lot of popularity given the recent findings that have taken place in Atapuerca. These have allowed the international scientific community to expand their current knowledge regarding the very beginnings of the human race.

For now, the number of Hominid species that have left some sort of trail behind in the area of Burgos comes up to a total of 4. This is the reason why Atapuerca is not just an ordinary Archeological Site, but is rather considered by many the Rosetta Stone of Human Evolution in Europe, given it is the home of Hominid remains which can be traced back to 1,500,000 years ago.

Now declared “Cultural Area” by the government of Castilla y León back in the year 2007, the Atapuerca mountain range beholds multiple chasms and underground galleries. This, as well as the fact that it is found in the middle of a natural hallway has helped enforce the settlement of multiple remains from different eras as well as their neat conservation over the years, up until just 100 years ago when an English Company decided to build train tracks on the area. In that moment, all the different chasms and underground galleries were discovered, showcasing the remains of human species and animals that had been awaiting to be discovered for thousands of years.


A past buried

Although the first scannings of the area took place back in the 19th Century, truth is that the cave had been known about and visited long before that time. In 1863, Felipe Ariño asked for full ownership of the Site, and five years later, Pedro Sampayo and Mariano Zuaznávar put together a full inventory and description of the cave, known as the “Sima de los Huesos”. At the same time as these small scannings are taking place, the Archeological Site suffers a series of robberies and obliterations.

Over the last few years of the 19th Century, right in the middle of the Spanish Industrial Revolution, a decision was made to build a train track for mine-working purposes starting by the Demanda Mountain Range all the way to Burgos. Back at the day, the Bask steel mill industries needed more Iron and Coal than they were obtaining from the León and Asturias Sites. The Demanda Mountain Range had such materials but lacked of any sort of transportation method in order to take them to Vizcaya. At last, and in order to find a solution for this issue, Richard Preece Williams went through with the train track building project, in behalf of his brand new Company: The Sierra Company Limited. Such a project would have a total length of 65 kilometers, and require the work of over 1,500 workers. It was finished 5 years later, in the year 1901.

At first, such path wasn’t meant to go through the Atapuerca Mountain Range, but in the end, the train tracks had to cut through its Southwest end, causing a deep trench of about half a kilometer of length and a total depth of almost 20 meters. It is believed that a decision was made then to change the original plans regarding the materials they would transport, and instead, exploit the now discovered hoard of Limestone that had been discovered in the Mountain Range, a commonly used construction material.

This train track was not only meant for mine exploiting purposes, it would also transport passengers and goods in order to be able to receive state loans. Regrettably, due to the impossibly high fares that the Ferrocarrilesdel Norte enforced, the transportation services came to an end in the year 1910. In 1917, the Sierra Company Limited went bankrupt and disappeared for good.

In the year 1910, the archeologist Jesús Carballo discovered the archeological Site and the wall paintings along the Cueva Mayor. This discovery attracted the attention of multiple well-known archeologists, such as Abate Henri Breuil, a leading professional in the field of Historical Cave Paintings in France, and Huego Obermaier, author of the book “El Hombre Fósil” – published in 1926, who went to study the area between 1911 and 1921. Regrettably, the historical events taking place at the time, forced the closure of the Site for Investigation and visitors.

Along the 1960’s, the Atapuerca Site opened up again to the public. In 1964, the teacher Francisco Jordá Cerdá begins the first excavation works. A few years later a group of speleologists, the Speleologist Edelweiss Group, finds the Sílex Gallery, which beholds the remains of funerary rituals and paintings from the Bronze Age. Right around the same time, the lecturer Juan María Apellániz begins the excavation campaigns in the Portalón de la Cueva Mayor. He will end up carrying out a total of eleven campaigns.

A few years later, in 1976, the Mine Engineer Trinidad de Torres Pérez-Hidalgo, who back then was working on his PHD thesis about fossil bear remains, meets up with anthropologist Emiliano Aguirre, in order to bring to him multiple samples of remains from the Sima de los Huesos. Torres also gets in touch with the Speleologist Edelweiss Group and side by side, they prepare an excavation project. Torres then asks for permission to Apellániz to access the Sima de los Huesos and search for bear remains, within which, he discovers human bones including a jaw. This represented a great discovery.

This jaw, as well as a few teeth and a couple skull fragments, establish what we now believe to be the first human remains found in the Atapuerca Mountain Range. Such an outstanding discovery motivated Aguirre into creating a Modern Investigation Project in 1977, which goals were getting to know the human race evolution in Europe over the Galasian Age and the Ionian Stage (Also known as Earlier Pleistocene and Middle Pleistocene) and putting together a Spanish investigator team capable of carrying out studies proficiently.

In the meantime, the poachers, disrespectful visitors and even the army actions represented a big issue and therefore caused unfixable damage in the area. The continuous pillaging that Atapuerca was suffering forced the Regional Government of Castilla y Leon to start the bureaucratic process to declare the area a “Heritage of Cultural Interest” in the year 1987. The final word came in December of 1991, after years of constant documental hassles and arguments, achieving the highest degree of protection that the Spanish Historical Heritage Law can give.

In the year 1990, Aguirre formally retires, leaving the lecturers J.L Arsuaga, J.M Bermúdex de Castro and E. Carbonell in charge of the project. Consequently, the 90’s are considered a prodigious and monumental decade and the Atapuerca project obtains a high scientific prestige and social reputation. Its true acknowledgement took place in the year 1977, when the team is awarded the Premio Principe de Asturias of Scientific and Technical Investigation, and the Premio Castilla y León of Social Sciences and Humanities.

The Archeological Sites

The oldest human presence

Panorámica de Atapuerca


Atapuerca is considered a unique place in the world by archeologists. The colony has the oldest human presence known and over 180 archeological Sites over its 6 kilometers of length, as well as signs of human activity starting from The Paleolithic to the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. The Site is accessible through the town of Ibeas de Barros and is divided in multiple areas.

The Train Trench: It’s the starting point of the path, home of various fossil remains. Within this area, we can find multiple hollow spaces. Visitors usually begin their journey here and get to enjoy a slideshow of the latest discoveries in the recently remodeled Cueva delCompresor.

The Elephant Cave: Here we can find the oldest samples of human remains, dated from approximately 1,000,000 years ago. In this part of the path we can find several tools used back in the day, such as cobblestones or flints, and even remains from the animals they would feed off of, such as rhinos and Wisents.

The Great Dolina: Over 350,000 years old, The Great Dolina is home of multiple tool remains, as well as the now confirmed existence of remains from what used to be a hunters camp site, where they would forge their utensils as well as feed off of their preys. In this Archeological Site lay the remains of the Homo Antecessor from 800,000 years ago. According to the investigations carried out, this Site was used as refuge for protection from wild animals, or factors such as the cold and the night.

The Portalón: In this section of the cave we can find hundreds of ceramic pieces and industrial tools, which shows the high population of this area during Bronze Age.
They also call attention spatulas and bone awls and bronze arrowheads, buttons and beads made of ivory, antler or bone. The fauna is home exhumes (horse, cow, goat), wild animals such as wild boar, deer, beaver and birds. 

The Observatory: This area seems to have been used as a farmyard and entertainment site. This cave belongs to the Cueva Mayor Complex. The entrance faces the Sierra de la Demanda. His scientific exploration began in 1999. If we look at its entrance, his back to her, we can see, like the Holocene groups who used the narrower Arlanzón Valley between the Sierra and the Moors point. 

The Sima de los Huesos: Is considered one of the most important archaeological sites not only of Atapuerca but in the world. It isn’t that easy to access but it is where most fossil remains have been spotted, despite its reduced size of just over 15 square meters. Remains of the Homo Heidelbergensis have been spotted here, over 90% of the remains found of the entire Hominid Species. Among other findings, one of the most important ones is Miguelón, the best preserved fossil skull in the entire world.


The Atapuerca Foundation

For scientific projection

The Atapuerca Foundation was created in July of 1999 with the aim of backing up the Investigation Project that was being carried out in the Atapuerca Mountain Range, at the same time as contributing its efforts so that the Archeological Sites could count with the cultural, scientific and social awareness they deserve. The Atapuerca Foundation is directed by EudaldCarbonell, member of the Investigation team that also lends its support to spreading awareness to the public, and participates in the management of visitors and public spaces.

The Human Evolution Museum

A recommended visit

Located in Burgos city, it represents a highly advised stop for all of those who are archeology fans. It showcases a unique expo in Spain regarding the human race origin and evolution based on the archeological findings we have up to date. The project represents the necessity of conserving, disclosing and making inventory of the archeological remains found in the Atapuerca Mountain Range Site.

This museum first opened its doors in July of 2010, and has since taken the lead of the “Atapuerca System. Evolution Knowledge”, a management tool in charge of coordinating the interaction between the various organisms, centers, and service departments of the Atapuerca Project.

Designed by the architect Juan Navarro, it represents the key element of Human Evolution. Up to this day, the museum has been awarded over 40 national and international acknowledgements.

The University of Burgos

I+D in the service of history

The University of Burgos also participates in the Atapuerca Mountain Range investigation projects through the Ancient History and Palaeontology branches of the Department of Historical Sciences, as well as the laboratories dedicated to Atapuerca´sI+D+i building. At the same time, it cooperates in the investigation field with projects and activities which main goals are empowering the Atapuerca System and show support in the management of the areas of Environment, Management and spreading awareness of Cultural Heritage.