In 2004 it was announced that the remains of
twenty-eight early humans found buried at the bottom of a cave shaft
in northern Spain may have belonged to a group that died suddenly in
Experts conducted an analysis to determine whether
it was likely that the bodies had accumulated in the shaft over the
span of many years or were dumped at the same time. They concluded
that the 400,000 year-old death chamber may have held the victims
of a disease outbreak or a massacre.
The study details were published in the Journal of
Anthropological Research in 2004. The researchers, led by Jose
Bermudez de Castro, co-director of the Atapuerca excavation, were
unable to determine the cause of death, but what did seem increasingly
clear was that the death of these people could have been simultaneous.
The remains were recovered from a fourteen metre-long
shaft called Sima de los Huesos (the pit of bones) in the caves of
Atapuerca, near the town of Burgos. Atapuerca contains one of the
richest records of prehistoric human occupation in Europe.
The bodies in the pit belonged to Homo
heidelbergensis. Most accept that this species was the common
ancestor of the Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens),
At the time Professor Bermudez de Castro took the opposing view,
believing that it was ancestral to the Neanderthals alone, which
in Europe is true, as the population of Homo heidelbergensis
was divided in two between Africa and Europe by the coming of an
Death and disasters
However, exactly how the bodies came to be
deposited at the bottom of the shaft has always perplexed and
intrigued those researchers that have excavated the site.