Atapuerca project

The Sierra de Atapuerca sites have been known since the end of the 19th century. The Burgos-based Edelweiss Caving Club (ECC) began to catalogue and map Cueva Mayor in the 1950’s. In 1962, ECC members reported sightings of fossils in the Railway Cutting to the authorities. Ten years later, the ECC discovered Galería del Sílex and in 1976, they located hominid skulls in Sima de los Huesos. The story of the Atapuerca Project really began in the same year, when mining engineer Trinidad Torres identified human remains in Sima de los Huesos. He informed palaeontologist Emiliano Aguirre, who immediately decided to investigate the Sierra de Atapuerca sites. In 1978, Aguirre designed a research project for the first digs in these hills. Emiliano Aguirre led the excavations until 1991, when he retired and handed over the leadership of the Atapuerca Research Project to Juan Luis Arsuaga, José María Bermúdez de Castro and Eudald Carbonell, deputy chairs and founders of the Atapuerca Foundation. The three co-directors built up a multidisciplinary excavation team which won the Prince of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research in 1997.

The Atapuerca Research Team (ART) now includes nearly 300 experts from 22 countries and 30 scientific disciplines. During the summer digs, they work at the Atapuerca sites, and spend the rest of the year at universities and research centres where they work in collaboration with the Foundation.

Atapuerca milestones


  • Systematic excavation begun at the Sierra de Atapuerca sites. Design of the Atapuerca research project, backed by the group which eventually became the Atapuerca Research Team (ART).


  • Official Cultural Heritage listing of the sites by the Government of Castilla and León.


  • Skull parts from several 430,000 year-old humans discovered at the Sima de los Huesos site.


  • First article in Nature about Atapuerca: Three new human skulls from the Sima de los Huesos Middle Pleistocene site in Sierra de Atapuerca (Spain).


  • Remains of a new hominid species, named Homo antecessor, the oldest in Western Europe to date, discovered at the Gran Dolina site.


  • Science reports the oldest evidence of cannibalism in human evolution in an article entitled Lower Pleistocene hominids and artefacts from Atapuerca TD6.


  • A monographic issue of Journal of Human Evolution on the Sima de los Huesos site.
  • Science reports the new species discovered in Atapuerca, Homo antecessor.
  • The Prince of Asturias Prize for Scientific and Technical Research awarded to the Atapuerca Research Team (ART), with just 50 members at the time. Emiliano Aguirre, Juan Luis Arsuaga, José María Bermúdez de Castro and Eudald Carbonell receive the award in the team’s name. The latter three members set up the Atapuerca Foundation 2 years later.


  • On 14 July, King Felipe VI (Prince of Asturias at the time) visits the Sierra de Atapuerca sites.


  • The Atapuerca Foundation, based in Ibeas de Juarros (Burgos, Spain), established to support the Atapuerca Research Team (ART) and the Atapuerca Project.


  • The Atapuerca Foundation’s pre- and post-doctoral grant programme begun in collaboration with the Duques de Soria Foundation, under the Atapuerca Chair, established in November 1999 in the presence of HRH the King and Queen of Spain.
  • The Atapuerca Foundation assumes responsibility for the logistics of the annual digs.
  • The Atapuerca Archaeological complex declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.


  • The Foundation hosts the Quetzal BBVA Route through Atapuerca.


  • The Foundation commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Atapuerca Project. Events include a performance by La Fura dels Baus theatre company near the sites.


  • L'Anthropologie reportsfirst evidence of possible funerary behaviour in history, found in Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca.
  • Atapuerca and Duques de Soria Foundations participate in an international science meeting, First Settlements and Human Evolution in Eurasia, at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.


  • Article on the hearing ability of Sima de los Huesos hominids published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).
  • The Foundation begins outreach work with the Cervantes Institute to publicise the Sierra de Atapuerca sites around the world.


  • 1.2 million year old hominid premolar and jawbone discovered in Sima del Elefante.
  • Atapuerca and Duques de Soria Foundations host an international seminar in Burgos under the Atapuerca Chair, Human palaeoecology: New Advances.


  • Front cover treatment in Nature for the Sima del Elefante discovery, along with an article, The first hominin of Europe.


  • Atapuerca System, Culture of Evolution (SACE) set up under the auspices of the Castilla and León Government’s Siglo Foundation to manage the site infrastructure and tourism.
  • Official opening of the National Human Evolution Research Centre (CENIEH) in Burgos.


  • HRH Queen Sofía accepts the Honorary Chair of the Foundation.
  • Official opening of the Human Evolution Museum in Burgos.
  • The Atapuerca Foundation organises an international seminar, First Settlements and Human Evolution in Eurasia at Expo 2010, Shanghai.
  • The Foundation establishes the biennial Evolution Prizes, with two categories: human values and scientific work.


  • The Government of Castilla and León entrusts the Foundation with the management of tours of the Sierra de Atapuerca sites and the Experimental Archaeology Centre (CAREX).
  • The Foundation publishes the monthly Periódico de Atapuerca in conjunction with the ART.


  • The Ancestros Foundation, chaired by Juan Luis Arsuaga, merges with the Atapuerca Foundation.


  • Nature reports on the oldest human DNA, identified using material discovered by ART researchers in Sima de los Huesos.
  • First series of annual lectures about the Atapuerca scientific project and sites, hosted by the ART during the digs. Organised by the Foundation in conjunction with the Government of Castilla and León’s Youth Institute.
  • The Foundation, backed by UNESCO and HRH Queen Sofía, organises the 14th World Congress of the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (UISPP), held in Spain for the first time in 60 years. 3,032 scientists from 55 countries attend 115 Congress sessions on the Burgos University campus.
  • In conjunction with Burgos University, the Foundation publishes two books in Spanish and English on the current state of Spanish Prehistory and Protohistory research: 1. Pleistocene and Holocene Hunter-gatherers in Iberia and the Gibraltar Strait: the current archaeological record and 2. Protohistory of the Iberian Peninsula: from the Neolithic to Romanization.


  • The Foundation signs a MoU with University College, London (UCL) to allow students and researchers to join the annual Atapuerca digs and receive course accreditation.
  • Queen Sofía chairs the Atapuerca Foundation’s Board of Trustees meeting for the first time.
  • The Foundation collaborates in the creation of the Atapuerca Experimental Archaeology Centre (CAREX), registering it with EXARC (Archaeological Open Air Museums, Experimental Archaeology, Ancient technology and Interpretation).
  • The Foundation designs a permanent exhibition, Sierra de Atapuerca, natural and cultural heritage for the Atapuerca Site Access Centre (CAYAC)


  • The Foundation signs three long-term MoU with the Museum of Gibraltar (Gorham Neanderthal caves), the Palarq Foundation (excavations in Eritrea), and the National Museum of Georgia (researcher exchanges between Spain and Georgia, whose Dmanisi site is closely linked to Atapuerca).


  • The Foundation joins the US-based Allies of Hispanic Culture, Education and Science Foundation (AHCES Foundation) with a view to attracting sponsorship from North America.


  • 40th anniversary of the Atapuerca Project commemorated with a tribute to the ART, a photo exhibition at the Museum of Human Evolution and a special issue of Periódico de Atapuerca.
  • First "3 heritages, 1 march" initiative, a 20 km walk from the archaeological sites to Burgos Cathedral along the Way of St. James.
  • Emiliano Aguirre Document Archives set up to hold essential material from the history of the Atapuerca Project.
  • The Foundation website receives 1,022,747 visits in 2018, with over 28,000 followers on Twitter, 15,000 on Facebook, over 500 on Linkedin and more than 5,000 on Instagram. #Atapuerca is one of Twitter’s Top 10 scientific hashtags in Spain España.
  • Periódico de Atapuerca issue No. 89.
  • Sierra de Atapuerca sites awarded the Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence for the fourth consecutive year.


  • Commemoration of the Atapuerca Foundation’s 20th anniversary.
  • Sierra de Atapuerca sites awarded the Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence for the fifth consecutive year.