Excalibur. Sima de los Huesos.
Ever since the discovery of the large number of corpses in Sima de los Huesos (Bones Pit), the Atapuerca research team has been striving to understand how the cave was formed, how it was filled in and how the 30-odd individuals found inside had arrived there. Several hypotheses about the latter mystery were proposed and rejected on the basis of fresh evidence.
There was initial speculation that the group had lived there and were buried alive during a natural catastrophe. Now we know that this was not the case: we have not found any stone tools or herbivores hunted outside and brought into the cave for consumption.
Another postulation was that the clan had pushed the bodies into the pit, implying a high level of group cohesion. This has now been confirmed by our bone analysis, which has shown that one of the subjects received attention by his fellows before dying.
The next mystery is why they were thrown into the pit- so as not to leave them at the mercy of scavengers or because of what could be called symbolic behaviour. The discovery of a hand axe in 1998 has led the team to believe they have found the answer to the enigma.
The axe, immediately dubbed Excalibur in honour of legendary King Arthur’s magic sword, is a biface of exceptionally high quality made from reddish quartzite. This 400,000 year old discovery, the only stone tool found amongst 4,000 human bones, shows that we have stumbled across a landmark item representing some sort of belief shared by an entire group, as well as being the oldest evidence of symbolic behaviour discovered to date.