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Debate rages about age and identification of La Sima de los Huesos fossils

In Atapuerca, Spain, lies a place known as La Sima de los Huesos (the Pit of Bones). At the bottom of this pit are the remains of 28 ancient humans which have been dated back 600,000 years. However, some scientists disagree and say the bones are 400,000 years old and have been misidentified.

Far from being a 600,000-year-old lair of a species called Homo heidelbergensis, he believes the pit is filled with Neanderthal remains that are no more than 400,000 years old. The difference in interpretation has crucial implications for understanding human evolution.

“The Atapuerca finds are hugely important,” said Stringer. “There is no other site like it in terms of numbers of bones and skulls of our ancient predecessors. It is the world’s biggest collection of ancient human fossils and the team there has done a magnificent job in excavating the site. However, if we cannot correctly fix the age and identity of the remains then we are in trouble. Getting that wrong even affects how we construct our own evolution.”

La Sima de los Huesos was discovered by potholers exploring Atapuerca’s cavern system. One brought back a few fragments of human bone. Excavations led by Juan Luis Arsuaga, of Madrid university, began in 1990 and within two years had uncovered two complete human brain cases. Ribcages, leg bones and jawbones were also dug up. Arsuaga tentatively dated the finds as being 300,000 years old.

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Story: Robin McKie, The Observer | Photo: Paul Hanna/Reuters

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