The Earliest Colonization of Europe: The Short Chronology Revisited

Article excerpt

Long-running discussions about when Europe was first colonized have recently been fuelled by new discoveries from the Iberian peninsula, which reports hominid occupation by 800,000, or even by 1.8 million years ago. The proceedings of the important Tautavel workshop (1993), published as The earliest occupation of Europe (Roebroeks $ van Kolfschoten (ed.) 1995), are now central. This new assessment takes forward ANTIQUITY's notice by Roebroeks & van Kolfschoten of 1994 (68: 489-503).

Reviewing the evidence pertinent to the first human settlement of Europe, both of us have argued that the European archaeological record changes substantially after 500,000 years ago (see TABLE 1); we have taken this as indicating that Europe was not colonized until around half a million years ago (Dennell 1983; Roebroeks & van Kolfschoten 1994). As discussed by Roebroeks (1996), the failure of the search in northern Europe for 'eoliths' in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and of later investigations looking for comparable Lower Pleistocene lithic assemblages, shows the absence of hominids from that region prior to the Middle Pleistocene beyond reasonable doubt.(1) The southern parts of Europe have been investigated for as long but not nearly as intensively; there is a greater probability of surprise there. Whilst Europe was primarily 'the empty continent' until perhaps 500,000 years ago, there might have been earlier, but sporadic and intermittent, occupation around the Mediterranean when conditions permitted (Dennell 1983). But until very recently, southern Europe simply did not produce good evidence for hominid occupation before half a million years ago. Potentially earlier sites have either been re-dated to after or around 500,000 years ago (e.g. Isernia; Roebroeks & van Kolfschoten 1994), and/or shown to lack convincing evidence for hominids, e.g. Le Vallonet (France) (White 1995) and the Lower Pleistocene Massif Central sites (France) (Rayhal et al. 1995a).

The new Iberian finds

Two Iberian localities have recently yielded surprises: Atapuerca near Burgos in northern Spain, and the Orce area further south in Andalusia. At both, evidence for hominids is claimed that is substantially older than the previously earliest traces of occupation of Iberia, dated to the earlier part of the Middle Pleistocene (Raposo & Santonja 1995). The new Atapuerca evidence has been published in two papers in Science (Carbonell et al. 1995; Pares & Perez-Gonzalez 1995), while the latest Orce evidence was presented to an international conference held in Orce in September 1995, at which we were present.


The new finds from Atapuerca consist of both hominid remains and artefacts, recovered from level TD6 at the Trinchera Dolina site (Carbonell et al. 1995). Earlier age-estimates for this level were based on biostratigraphical evidence, mainly by correlating the types of microfauna found in the TD6 horizon with early Middle Pleistocene faunas outside Iberia, such as Sussen-born (Germany) and West Runton (England), both of which are around 500,000 years old. This age assessment also agreed well with the location of the Brunhes-Matuyama palaeo-magnetic boundary (c. 780,000 years ago) deeper in the section, at around TD2/3 (cf. Aguirre & Hoyos 1992; Carbonell & Rodriguez 1994). The initial biostratigraphical interpretation of the TD6 horizon therefore suggested that Atapuerca was first occupied shortly before the earliest north and central European sites such as Boxgrove (England) (Gamble 1994; Roberts et al. 1994), Miesenheim and Mauer (Germany) (Bosinski 1995). The excavators' original correlation of the TD6 level to Oxygen Isotope Stage 13 and the presence of handaxes in the TD6 assemblage fitted very well into the short chronology-scenario for Europe's earliest occupation (cf. TABLE 1).

Re-analysis of the Atapuerca TD doline infill now places the Brunhes-Matuyama boundary well above the TD6 horizon, giving the hominid remains and artefacts an age in excess of 800,000 years. …