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<i>First Europeans</i> Exhibit on Display at NY's  American Museum of Natural History

The origins and evolution of the human species are among the most compelling and challenging mysteries facing modern science. Current theories rest on largely fragmentary fossil evidence gathered over the past century, and huge gaps remain in this anthropological puzzle. But dramatic progress is being made. Over the past 18 years, scientists in the remote Atapuerca hills of northern Spain have excavated a huge trove of human and human-like bones and artifacts that date back between 300,000 and 800,000 years.

Taken together, these finds could shed new light not only on some of the earliest human settlements, but also on the beginnings of symbolic thought, religious ritual even cannibalism. That is the focus of a major new exhibition in New York. It's called "The First Europeans: Treasures from the Hills of Atapuerca," at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

At the unveiling of the First Europeans exhibit, Ellen Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History, offered reporters, anthropologists and other scientists an enthusiastic introduction to the new show.

"We are here today because we cannot help but be fascinated by the mysteries of our own origins and informed by what they tell us, not only about our predecessors, but about ourselves," she said. "Who preceded us on Earth? Where did they live? What did they do? Were they like us at all? Were they human, at least as we understand it? And more to the point, what does it really mean to be human in our time and in ages before?"

Ongoing excavations in the hills and underground caves around Atapuerca, Spain may help provide some answers. Two sites especially, Gran Dolina and Sima de los Huesos, have yielded the largest collection of human and "hominid" or "human-like" bones ever discovered. Most of these bones are between 300,000 to 800,000 years old.

Edward Summer, editor of a children's paleontology magazine, who attended the exhibit, pointed out that the number and completeness of these remains have been a boon to anthropologists everywhere.

"Normally you have only a tiny number of isolated specimens. It's hard to build a clear picture when you only have an elbow here, a toe there, and an ear bone there," Mr. Summer said. "But when you get nearly a thousand hominid ancestors with nearly complete skeletons, you can really get a lot of information."

While most anthropologists place humanity's origins in Africa, up to now, there has been little knowledge of early human communities in Europe, where many of those early humans are thought to have migrated. Ian Tattersall, a museum anthropologist and the curator of the new show, said that's another reason the Atapuerca discoveries are so important.

"And these fossils show that, in fact, the early exploration of Europe was a rather experimental procedure, with different kinds of hominids trying their luck in this new and very hostile environment for them to occupy," Mr. Tattersall explained. "These Atapuerca forms feature in human evolution. But they are not necessarily human as we understand ourselves today."

Adam Phillips:"In what sense would they be humans?"
Ian Tattersall:"They would be humans in the sense that they are very close relatives to ourselves. They would be human in the sense that that they belong to the genus Homo. We'd recognize them physically as ourselves from a long way off. Whether we'd recognize them cognitively when we got close up is another question."

Museum anthropologist Ken Mowbray points to the well-preserved 800,000-year-old skull of a small child, one of the top prizes the Gran Dolina site has yielded so far. The skull's features resemble our own, enough to call it a human of sorts, but its structure also differs enough from ours to warrant a separate species designation, Homo antecessor, or "forebear human."

"That's an incredible specimen," said Mr. Mowbray. "It has unique characteristics of having a very modern looking face but having very primitive-looking teeth. It was obviously a different species, nothing that has been seen before… It shows you how diverse our human history is and how far back that diversity goes."

Many of the human bones found at Gran Dolina bear cuts and gouge marks identical to those found on animal bones. This indicates that Homo antecessor might have practiced cannibalism.

"These humans were taking their simple stone tools and bashing and cutting bones of animals that they had either killed or scavenged," Mr. Mowbray said. "But they were also treating other humans the same way they did animals on the landscape."

Adam Phillips:"What does that tell you?"
Ken Mowbray:"Perhaps we haven't gone very far in 800,000 years."

Nearby, researchers discovered the so-called "Sima de los huesos" or "pit of the bones." It's a hole about 25-meters deep, containing 28 human or human-like skeletons, many over a half-million years old, along with several large animal bones. This makes Sima de las Huesos the largest repository of complete early human fossils ever found. Unlike the bones at Gran Dolina, these bones have not been cut or marked.

Also unlike the Gran Dolina site, which contained many stone tools, no stone tools were discovered at Sima de las Huesos during the almost eighteen years of excavations. Then, in 1998, workers uncovered one double-sided quartzite hand-ax so elegantly wrought that it indicated a maker with intelligence and skill far superior to other hominids from that early date. This Sima hand-ax is a centerpiece of the current exhibition.

"It is obviously beautiful. It's flaked [chipped away] on both sides," Mr. Mowbray explained. "When you look at it, you see the rosy glow to it and also the brown patina. And it's a quartzite and in the right light, it sparkles, and it just speaks to you. And the symmetry is just beautiful. I love looking at it and I am sure everyone else does as well."

"You have to figure that they had a rock and they wanted to shape it a certain way and they did. Perhaps early humans tossed it into the pit as [a way of] paying respect to their brethren who had fallen into the pit or were tossed down there by their colleagues."

This pile of bones may have been intentionally created, perhaps as a sacred or funerary spot. If so, this ancient site could mark the beginning of human foresight and cognition on a par with our own, said Juan Luis Arsuaga, the leader of the Sima dig.

"I can't prove it. All I can say is this behavior is symbolic. It has [had] a meaning for the people who made it. It was not made for food or anything practical," he said. "This behavior was made because they had beliefs, and these beliefs were shared by the whole group, and probably were transmitted between generations. The evolution of the mind. In paleoanthropology, this is the last frontier."

Other notable finds on display sat the exhibit include the first fully reconstructed skeleton of a Neanderthal, a now-extinct human species which co-existed and probably competed with homo sapiens before dying out.

The Neanderthal specimen, with its sloping forehead, protruding brow and a short, brutish stance, is distinctly different from, but also eerily similar, to what we modern Homo sapiens see in our mirrors every morning.

First Europeans: Treasures from the Hills of Atapuerca will be on display at the American Museum of Natural History through April 13.