Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain

By Mabel Soriano, 11th Grade

Burgos is a place of many cultural treasures ranging from their tasteful blood sausage, breathtaking architecture, and perhaps one of the most relevant museums relating to the study of Darwinism. The Museum of Human Evolution is an institution of paleontology-the study of ancient life— and biological anthropology—the study of evolution—that holds various collections of fossils and lithic technology excavated near this Spanish city. On July 13th, 2010, the museum came to life, and since that point on, it has become one of the most visited museums in Spain. But why?  

The project was born linked to the need to conserve and disseminate the archaeological remains from the Sierra de Atapuerca sites, 15 kilometers from Burgos. They gained scientific and social prominence in 1992 when scientists unearthed ancient fossils in Sima de Los Huesos and then again two years later with the discovery of 850,000-year-old human remains, which defined a new species, Homo antecessor. 

Homo antecessor is an extinct species belonging to the genus Homo, considered the oldest hominid species in Europe. The oldest known hominid ancestor,  Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered in 1974 by paleontologist Donald C. Johanson in Hadar, Ethiopia. On this occasion, the scientists found the world’s most famous early human ancestor, the 3.2-million-year-old ape, Lucy. She was a mixture of ape and human features, including long dangling arms, pelvis, spine, foot, and leg bones suited for walking upright and 3 1/2 feet tall. This discovery was quite extraordinary to essentially everything we know about evolution and us, for that matter. Lucy’s skeleton made us aware that we don’t come from a monkey—a common belief— but rather a mixture between an ape and a human. 

As we know, the human body changes due to environmental conditions. Therefore, multiple hominid species arose and went extinct once their particular traits weren’t necessary, also known as survival of the fittest. Species started becoming taller, stronger, and more intellectually capable. Thus, the homo antecessor skeleton found near Burgos had hardy teeth, a receding chin, a smaller brain, and was taller than previous ancestors. These biological features made it possible for paleontologists to understand their lifestyles. For example, based on the teeth and larger-than-usual jaw, we can now know that humans used to be cannibals. 

Besides understanding how the human body and lifestyle have evolved through time, these scientific findings are also relevant in comprehending where we come from. And no, I’m not talking about how babies are made but where we geographically come from. The first human common ancestor, Lucy, appeared in Africa. Actually, the origin of the whole human race can be traced back to the African continent. It is a fact that if we compare two human beings the results will show that they are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup. Consequently, all human beings regardless of their physical characteristics are of African origin. This is really relevant to the study of race and discrimination in our current society, highlighting once again that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact. 

The Museum of Human Evolution constitutes an international benchmark in relation to the evolutionary process of man in its ecological, biological, and cultural aspects in chronological sequence. Moreover, the institution explains biological anthropology in a beginner-friendly concept and features different hominid species as the remarkable beings we are. Additionally, the museum was included in the declaration of the Atapuerca sites as a World Heritage Site in 2015, when they were classified by UNESCO as a “place of outstanding universal value”. 

Yet, this museum isn’t only a scientifically relevant institution but also an architectural treasure since it has received more than 40 national and international awards. So, if you ever find yourself in Burgos, take a little time to explore this place of extraordinary findings.


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