The History of Spain's Gran Dolina

Lower and Middle Paleolithic Cave Site

Workers at the Gran Dolina

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Stringer / Getty Images

Gran Dolina is a cave site in the Sierra de Atapuerca region of central Spain, approximately 15 kilometers from the town of Burgos. It is one of six important paleolithic sites located in the Atapuerca cave system; Gran Dolina represents the longest occupied, with occupations dated from the Lower and Middle Paleolithic periods of human history.

Gran Dolina has 18-19 meters of archaeological deposits, including 19 levels of which eleven include human occupations. Most of the human deposits, which date between 300,000 and 780,000 years ago, are rich in animal bone and stone tools.

The Aurora Stratum at Gran Dolina

The oldest layer at Gran Dolina is called the Aurora stratum (or TD6). Recovered from TD6 were stone core-choppers, chipping debris, animal bone and hominin remains. TD6 was dated using electron spin resonance to approximately 780,000 years ago or a little earlier. Gran Dolina is one of the oldest human sites in Europe as only Dmanisi in Georgia is older.

The Aurora stratum contained the remains of six individuals, of a hominid ancestor called Homo antecessor, or perhaps H. erectus: there is some debate of the specific hominid at Gran Dolina, in part because of some Neanderthal-like characteristics of the hominid skeletons (see Bermúdez Bermudez de Castro 2012 for a discussion). Elements of all six exhibited cut marks and other evidence of butchering, including dismembering, defleshing, and skinning of the hominids and thus Gran Dolina is the oldest evidence of human cannibalism found to date.

Bone Tools From Gran Dolina

Stratum TD-10 at Gran Dolina is described in the archaeological literature as transitional between Acheulean and Mousterian, within Marine Isotope Stage 9, or approximately 330,000 to 350,000 years ago. Within this level were recovered more than 20,000 stone artifacts, mostly of chert, quartzite, quartz, and sandstone, and denticulates and side-scrapers are the primary tools.

Bone have been identified within TD-10, a handful of which are believed to represent tools, including a bone hammer. The hammer, similar to ones found in several other Middle Paleolithic sites, appears to have been used for soft-hammer percussion, that is, as a tool for making stone tools. See the description of the evidence in Rosell et al. listed below.

Archaeology at Gran Dolina

The complex of caves in Atapuerca was discovered when a railway trench was excavated through them in the mid-19th century; professional archaeological excavations were conducted in the 1960s and the Atapuerca Project began in 1978 and continues to this day.


Aguirre E, and Carbonell E. 2001. Early human expansions into Eurasia: The Atapuerca evidence. Quaternary International 75(1):11-18.

Bermudez de Castro JM, Carbonell E, Caceres I, Diez JC, Fernandez-Jalvo Y, Mosquera M, Olle A, Rodriguez J, Rodriguez XP, Rosas A et al. 1999. The TD6 (Aurora stratum) hominid site, Final remarks and new questions. Journal of Human Evolution 37:695-700.

Bermudez de Castro JM, Martinon-Torres M, Carbonell E, Sarmiento S, Rosas, Van der Made J, and Lozano M. 2004. The Atapuerca sites and their contribution to the knowledge of human evolution in Europe. Evolutionary Anthropology 13(1):25-41.

Bermúdez de Castro JM, Carretero JM, García-González R, Rodríguez-García L, Martinón-Torres M, Rosell J, Blasco R, Martín-Francés L, Modesto M, and Carbonell E. 2012. Early pleistocene human humeri from the Gran Dolina-TD6 site (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). American Journal of Physical Anthropology 147(4):604-617.

Cuenca-Bescós G, Melero-Rubio M, Rofes J, Martínez I, Arsuaga JL, Blain HA, López-García JM, Carbonell E, and Bermudez de Castro JM. 2011. The Early-Middle Pleistocene environmental and climatic change and the human expansion in Western Europe: A case study with small vertebrates (Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution 60(4):481-491.

Fernández-Jalvo Y, Díez JC, Cáceres I, and Rosell J. 1999. Human cannibalism in the Early Pleistocene of Europe (Gran Dolina, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution 37(3-4):591-622.

López Antoñanzas R, and Cuenca Bescós G. 2002. The Gran Dolina site (Lower to Middle Pleistocene, Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain): new palaeoenvironmental data based on the distribution of small mammals. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 186(3-4):311-334.

Rosell J, Blasco R, Campeny G, Díez JC, Alcalde RA, Menéndez L, Arsuaga JL, Bermúdez de Castro JM, and Carbonell E. 2011. Bone as a technological raw material at the Gran Dolina site (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution 61(1):125-131.

Rightmire, GP. 2008 Homo in the Middle Pleistocene: Hypodigms, variation, and species recognition. Evolutionary Anthropology 17(1):8-21.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Spain's Gran Dolina." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 28). The History of Spain's Gran Dolina. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Spain's Gran Dolina." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).