Climate and environment of the earliest West European hominins inferred from amphibian and squamate reptile assemblages: Sima del Elefante Lower Red Unit, Atapuerca, Spain

Research Projects
Organizational Units
Journal Issue
The Sima del Elefante cave, in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain), is famous for the fact that level TE9 of its Lower Red Unit recently delivered the oldest hominin remains of Western Europe, identified as Homo antecessor and dated by biostratigraphy and radiometric methods to ca 1.2 Ma. Given the importance of this discovery, every effort is being made to reconstruct the landscapes where these hominins once thrived. The amphibian and squamate reptile assemblage of the Sima del Elefante Lower Red Unit is here studied for the first time. The faunal list comprises at least 17 species (roughly 12,000 bone fossil remains): Salamandra salamandra, Triturus cf. marmoratus, Alytes obstetricans, Pelobates cultripes, Pelodytes punctatus, Bufo bufo, Bufo calamita, Hyla arborea, Rana sp., cf. Pelophylax sp., Lacerta s.l., small-sized indeterminate lacertids, Anguis fragilis, Natrix cf. natrix, Natrix cf. maura, Coronella cf. girondica and Vipera sp. As the amphibians and squamate reptiles do not differ at species level from the extant herpetofauna of the Iberian Peninsula, they can contribute to the reconstruction of the landscape and climate. In this paper, the mutual climatic range and habitat weighting methods are applied to the amphibian and squamate reptile assemblages in order to estimate quantitative data. The results from the squamate and amphibian study indicate that during the hominin presence the mean annual temperature (MAT = 10–13 °C) was always slightly warmer than at present and the mean annual precipitation (MAP = 800–1000 mm) was greater than today in the Burgos area. The landscape had open habitats in the vicinity of the Atapuerca caves throughout the sequence, with wet points in the surrounding area, and a predominance of humid meadows and open woodlands. These results mainly agree with those for large mammals, small mammals and the pollen analysis. The climate and landscape of TE-LRU are very similar to those reconstructed for the TD6 “Aurora Stratum” level of the Gran Dolina cave (Atapuerca) that has yielded H. antecessor remains at ca 960 ky. When compared with Orce localities of similar age (i.e. Barranco León D and Fuente Nueva 3) that have yielded strong evidence of hominin presence (mainly lithic industries), it appears that they have a fairly similar environmental pattern, having in common a good representation of woodland and water-edge areas, even though dry environments are more developed in Barranco León D and Fuente Nueva 3 than in Sima del Elefante and Gran Dolina. H. antecessor may have thus lived under a warm-humid climate in a patchy landscape mainly composed of humid meadows and riparian woodlands. Such a landscape may have provided favourable conditions for a high diversity of large mammals, as well as for hiding and escaping from large carnivores.
UCM subjects
Unesco subjects