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Rolf Quam

Anthropology Department
Binghamton University

Recent Discoveries in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Spain)

Friday, October 30, 2009
Lecture Hall 2, 4:00  PM


The Middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (‘Pit of the Bones’) in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain contains the richest human-fossil-bearing sediments in the world. This site has yielded more than 6,000 human fossils, belonging to at least 28 individuals of diverse ages and different sexes, which have been assigned to the species Homo heidelbergensis and are considered to represent the ancestral European population that evolved into the Neandertals. This represents nearly 75% of the worldwide fossil record for the genus Homo from this time period. Study of this extraordinary collection is providing new insights into the origin and evolution of Neandertals and raises a number of interesting questions regarding the earliest evidence of mortuary practices, the evolution of language, body size and brain size, sexual dimorphism, pathology and social behavior.


I am a paleoanthropologist with two main areas of interest and active research: the origin and evolution of the Neandertals and tracing the evolution of hearing during the course of our evolutionary history. I have studied and published scientific articles on original fossil human specimens from European, Middle Eastern and African sites, spanning the last 3 million years and representing the hominin generaAustralopithecusParanthropus and Homo. I have participated in the excavations in the Sierra de Atapuerca for the past 14 years and maintain an active research program in collaboration with a number of Spanish colleagues. In particular, we are currently investigating the auditory capacities in a number of fossil human taxa and believe this may represent a new avenue of inquiry into one of the oldest questions in human evolutionary studies: the origin of language. I am currently visiting assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Binghamton University (SUNY).


  1. The Atapuerca Sites and Their Contribution to the Knowledge of Human Evolution in Europe: This article provides a good overview of the different hominin species found in the Atapuerca mountain range. The article mainly concentrates on the remains of H. antecessor, a species that to date has only been found at the site of Gran Dolina within the Atapuerca mountain range. This species has been hypothesized to represent the last common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans. The EvoS lecture will focus on the fossils from the site of the Sima de los Huesos, also in the Atapuerca mountain range and within walking distance of the Gran Dolina site. These fossils are later in time and represent the species H. heidelbergensis and they are believed to represent the exclusive ancestors of the Neandertals. The relationship between H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis is still unclear.
  2. The origin of Neandertals: This article presents the most current thinking on the origin and evolution of the Neandertals and their evolutionary relationships with other Homo taxa. Issues of taxonomy in the Middle Pleistocene are also discussed, which is a topic of considerable debate.  Should the name Homo heidelbergensis be restricted to refer only to European Middle Pleistocene humans (like those at Atapuerca) or, alternatively, should it also include some African specimens? These different definitions for Homo heidelbergensis have considerable implications for our understanding of the evolutionary process in the Middle and Late Pleistocene populations of the Old World.

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