For three decades, they have been gathering every July in a very special place in the province of Burgos. Arriving there as students, they met Eudald Carbonell, José María Bermúdez de Castro and Juan Luis Arsuaga, who will end up supervising their theses and later be the culprits of a passion that has no end. That place is Atapuerca and the friends who don’t miss their appointment are now professors, researchers or professors from universities around the world. They meet at the construction site and join the excavator team. Without fees, without asking for anything in return. As they listened to them, they remembered Indiana Jones emerging from a dark library, ready to search for archaeological treasure.
“I’ve spent my entire scientific career here in Atapuerca.” Rolf Quam, 54, lives outside of Spain. He was recently appointed director of the department of anthropology at Binghamton University in upstate New York and wrote to the rest of the team to let them know. If something happens to him 8,000 kilometers away, he feels the need to share it with the rest of the team. It has been returning to Atapuerca every July for the past 25 years.
It seems a lot, but there are those who far exceed it. Ana Gracia, for example, came here for the first time in the summer of 1986. Today she is a professor at the Institute of Geology, Geography and Environment at the University of Alcalá de Henares. At the age of 28 she was responsible for the reconstruction of skull 5, the most famous of all from Atapuerca: that of Miguelón. In the academic archives it is identified as the AT-700 fossil and, along with other discoveries from the same 1992 campaign, marked a turning point in social and political support for the project, and hence economic support. Although she had seen it all when she found out about the discovery of this campaign in 2022 a few days ago, she called her father from the deposits, who responded with “it’s amazing what you’re doing” after hearing the enthusiastic tone of his 30th birthday -year-old daughter heard later.
The latest find he is referring to, dated June 30, is the fossil face of a hominid that lived 1.2 to 1.4 million years ago, the scientific analysis of which is of extraordinary importance in understanding the early evolutionary steps of the human race is from Africa and the occurrence of genuine European species. “For me, it’s the most important thing in my life,” says Eudald Carbonell, one of the three directors of the site and the one who first began excavating in 1978. “I don’t think another discovery has made such an impression on me and that I have discovered many things,” he emphasizes, leaning against the so-called welcome monolith at the entrance to the Atapuerca complex. The scope of the claim is great, considering that it was discovered here homo ancestorand that more than half of the world’s entire prehistoric fossil record comes from its deposits.
But at almost 70 and about to retire, he says, “I’m on my way out.” It’s not what makes him most proud of the more than four decades he’s dedicated to building the Atapuerca dedicated to the project. “I prefer, above all, to have humanized the team itself.” Around the three directors of Atapuerca some of the most recognized scientific personalities of prehistory in the world have formed, but they have also grown and matured.
Working altruistically with the three directors to push the project forward while each simultaneously building their lives, an academic curriculum and economic stability was not easy. José Miguel Carretero, now professor of paleontology at the University of Burgos, emphasizes how difficult it was to find a scholarship two decades ago. “They were very rare,” he explains. “I remember there was a PhD grant for every faculty, imagine that.” After graduating in biology, he spent the next two years soliciting public and private help, with little success, only with the support of his Family. “It’s pretty much the same today. Of course there are still some scholarships, but they are insufficient and financially poorly endowed.”
Similarly, during a break from the excavation day at the Sima del Elefante for which she is responsible, Rosa Huguet points out the precariousness of the academic world for those who decide to devote themselves to this passion. She is a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoanthropology and Social Evolution, IPHES, and one of the youngest members of this team senior citizens, aged 49. She knows she’s privileged: “I’ve been luckier than the previous generation and a lot luckier than the later ones. I entered at the peak of the project: 1994’s homo ancestor, In 1997 they gave us the Prince of Asturias Prize for the project and the research centers were created: IPHES, Carlos III and CENIEH. Current researchers suffer from great instability, the science policy in Spain is not the best now and they have to go to calls that guarantee them two years in two years. You can’t make professional or private plans for the future.”
Ahead of the sweet moment that followed the obscene campaign in the summer of 1992, when the Sima de los Huesos began pouring out their treasures, Carretero recalls that the context was different: “We were digging with four duros in cloth overalls that we were soaked, some lights we didn’t even know how to use. Of course we had never seen a speleologist’s ladder in our lives… But we were 20 years old”. Even today, every summer they sleep in the same university residence as the students in Burgos. They share breakfast, lunch, dinner and rest times.
Ignacio Martínez is Professor of Paleontology at the University of Alcalá de Henares. Between 1986 and 2000 he was a science teacher at a public institute in Getafe (Madrid), managing to pay the bills, raise a family and keep the annual appointment in Burgos. “I studied myself, if you will,” he explains, referring to the oppositions he studied and passed. “I am Senior when I look in the mirror in the morning and say ‘Hi dad’ because I’m starting to look more and more like my dad, but I’ve been here all my life and I still see myself the same way I did years ago.” It’s the one that’s the most epic is when it comes to the special bond that binds them.”The kind of brotherhood of knowing that you’ve been looking out for me all these years,” he says. “We’ve seen ourselves falling in love through all that time get divorced, have children, present theses, get depressed, lose relatives.”
“But that can’t be, have I really been here that long?” Huguet wonders as he pulls out the calendar. He has been spending his summers in Atapuerca for 29 years, 21 of them in the Sima del Elefante, origin of the latest discovery. “We share everything, like making sure there is always someone watching the kids that arrive and bringing them to them while their mum or dad is in the lab. Or the festivals of the towns around when we were younger”.
Javier Trueba is another honorary member who has been documenting everything on celluloid for more than 35 years, initially in high definition and since the middle of the last decade. “These are the heroes that interest me,” he says. “You could go to the beach and still come here. I’m not interested in the ephemeral heroes who make history in a soccer game every weekend. These really do. In fact, they are in all libraries.”
“Coming here gives us endorphins, it’s like a drug for this group of scientists.” José María Bermúdez de Castro, one of the directors, embodies her. “Our lives revolve around Atapuerca,” he says. There are many things you don’t want to do in July. “I would love to go to this or that invitation or award ceremony, but I dig,” he says, he has to say several times a year.
At the back of the Gallery of Statues, another excavation site, Arsuaga can be seen encouraging the students in this year’s campaign. “It’s you now…” he can be heard saying. “I want to congratulate you and a lot of encouragement!”. Applause is heard and Arsuaga goes to one of the nine work sites on the site, looking for young blood to bring the passion for understanding what people are like. And there is still a lot to discover in Atapuerca.
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