The first reports of the existence of archaeological and paleontological remains in the caves of the Sierra de Atapuerca go back to 1863. In 1868, the mining engineers P. Sampayo and M. Zuaznavar published a thorough study of Cueva Mayor which detailed numerous geological and archaeological aspects of the cave. At the same time, they denounced the damage and degradation of the site due to the disrespectful behavior of visitors to the cave.
From 1896-1901, the English company “The Sierra Company Limited” constructed a mining railroad to transport iron ore from the nearby Sierra de la Demanda to the city of Burgos. During construction of the railway, a veritable trench (“Trinchera”) was cut into the limestone of the mountain to allow the route to pass by the Sierra de Atapuerca. This trench exposed several previously collapsed cavities containing fossil-bearing sediments whose significance wasn’t recognized at the time, but which today comprise the important sites described above.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, the evidence for cave art and the archaeological importance of the interior of Cueva Mayor was recognized through the studies of J. Carballo, H. Breuil, H. Obermaier, who includes Atapuerca in his book El Hombre Fósil (1912), and J.M. Santa-Olalla, after which the cave is definitively incorporated into studies of European Prehistory. Around this same time, the Spanish geologist J. Royo-Gómez is the first to mention the quaternary sediments in the “Trinchera del Ferrocarril” in an insightful study of the sierra which he carried out in 1926 for an excursion of the XIV International Geological Congress.
As a result of the abandonment of the mining railway in the 1950's, J.L. Uribarri, of the Grupo Espeleológico Edelweiss de Burgos (The Edelweiss Speleological Group of Burgos) began research in 1954 on the sediments in the Trinchera. This lead to the first excavations in the Sierra de Atapuerca conducted by F. Jordá of the University of Salamanca in 1962 and 1966. During the 1950's, the establishment of limestone quarries in the Trinchera led to the destruction of part of the sites, which moved the Grupo Edelweiss to begin a difficult battle for their protection. In October of 1968, the government finally regulated access to the caves and prehistoric sites in the Sierra de Atapuerca.
In 1972, G.A. Clark of the University of Arizona (USA), interested in the archaeological potential of the numerous cave sites in Burgos province, conducted a series of excavations both in the Trinchera and in the site of Portalón in Cueva Mayor, where he found a rich Bronze Age stratigraphic sequence. In December of this same year, the Grupo Edelweiss discovered the Galería del Sílex in Cueva Mayor, a funerary sanctuary dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age and containing important archaeological remains. This exceptional discovery led J.M. Apellániz, of the University of Deusto, to excavate in the Portalón for 11 years (from 1972-1983), and established the importance of the Portalón for studies of recent Prehistory. Unfortunately, in addition to the continued quarrying activities, in 1972 a military artillery training ground was established in the Sierra de Atapuerca. This motivated the Provincial Government of Burgos in 1973 to begin the process of declaring the sites in the Sierra a Historic Artistic Monument.
In 1976, T. Torres, a student of Pleistocene bears, excavated with the Grupo Edelweiss in both the Trinchera and the Sima de los Huesos de Cueva Mayor, where, in addition to bear bones, they discovered human remains as well. This important discovery led E. Aguirre to create the first modern research project in the Sierra de Atapuerca with the twin goals of furthering our understanding of human evolution in Europe during the Middle and Upper Pleistocene and of forming a team of Spanish researchers capable of carrying out the excavations and future research.
Nevertheless, the destruction of the sites continued and the activities of treasure hunters and vandals, as well as the military, caused irreversible damage. The continued looting of the sites finally led the Junta de Castilla y León in 1987 to initiate the process to declare the sites in the Sierra de Atapuerca an Asset of Cultural Interest (Bien de Interés Cultural - BIC). In December of 1991, after 18 years of struggle and bureaucratic red tape, the resolution was approved, covering an area of 2.5 km2, less than one third of the total surface area of the Sierra, and providing the highest level of protection established under the Law 16/85 regarding Spanish Heritage.
With the retirement of E. Aguirre in 1990, the current co-directors, professors J.L. Arsuaga, J.M. Bermúdez de Castro and E. Carbonell, assumed control of the project. The 1990's were a prodigious decade, with important new discoveries in the Sima de los Huesos and Gran Dolina. Today Atapuerca is a highly prestigious scientific project and enjoys a significant social impact due to the combination of high quality research published in major scientific journals and efforts by the research team to popularize the latest and most important discoveries. Recognition of both these accomplishments came in 1997 when the research team was awarded two highly prestigious awards: the “Premio Príncipe de Asturias de Investigación Científica y Técnica” (the Prince of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research) and the “Premio Castilla y León de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades” (the Castilla y León Award for Social Sciences and Humanities).
On November 30, 2002 UNESCO declared the Sierra de Atapuerca a World Heritage Site due to its authenticity and exceptional nature. We hope that this declaration will guarantee the preservation of the Sierra for future generations, but this effort concerns all of us. With this award, Atapuerca enters the 21st Century forming part of our global cultural heritage, surpassing international borders and languages, and reaches the end of a long journey initiated in the 19th century, during which countless individuals have taken an active role in protecting, investigating and disseminating the extraordinary significance of this unique place.