When the paleontologist from Ferrol (Coruña) Emiliano Aguirre began to work in the Burgos site of Atapuerca in 1976, this enclave was only a promise. His initial works were the introduction of a fundamental book to understand the history of humanity in an area declared a World Heritage Site 21 years ago by UNESCO. Aguirre died this Monday at the age of 96, as confirmed by the Atapuerca Foundation. Ana Crespo, president of the Natural Sciences Section of the Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences of Spain, recalls that Aguirre was the first director of the Atapuerca project: “I believe that, rigorously, it can be said that he was its discoverer”.
Aguirre, professor in Human Paleontology, began working in the Sierra de Atapuerca in 1976 and elevated his findings to the category of discoveries of world importance until he achieved international recognition for this site, located 15 kilometers east of the capital of Burgos, as one of the most important to understand human evolution.
Already in 1983, Aguirre warned that Atapuerca was a unique site and warned of the need to maintain the excavation campaigns due to the lack of funds, which forced the temporary closure of the tasks planned that year.
His work was recognized with the Prince of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research in 1998, a year before Juan Luis Arsuaga, José María Bermúdez de Castro and Eudald Carbonell assumed the direction of the Atapuerca Foundation.
The relief did not distance him from the site. Until the last moment he remained in contact with the project and contributed an important bibliographic and documentary legacy on the findings in the cave.
Over a million years
In the deposits of the Sierra de Atapuerca, fossil remains and evidence of the presence of five different hominid species have been found: Homo sp. (yet to be determined, 1,300,000 years), Homo antecessor (850,000 years), pre-Neanderthal (500,000 years), Homo neanderthalensis (50,000 years) and Homo sapiens.
With a degree in Philosophy, Natural Sciences, Theology and a doctorate in Biological Sciences, he conceived the Burgos quarry from the beginning as a multidisciplinary and long-term project.
In addition to the Prince of Asturias, in 1998 he was awarded the Castilla y León Prize in Social Sciences and Humanities and in 1999, the Gold Medal for Merit at Work. In 2000 he was appointed permanent academic of the Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences and, later, an honorary member of the College of Biologists of Galicia.
Aguirre’s connection with Atapuerca was favored by an Engineering student to whom he directed the thesis and who found some teeth in the area. In that moment he knew they were human. In the cut made in the ground for the construction of a railway line, the paleontologist found more fossils
The paleontologist did not focus only on Atapuerca. Between 1955 and 1962 he discovered in the province of Granada more than twenty deposits with fossils between 900,000 and 1,200,000 years old.
Emiliano de Aguirre was also one of the creators of the Madrid school of vertebrate paleontology and in 1985 assumed the direction of the Museum of Natural Sciences, created in 1771 by Carlos III on the basis of funds donated by Pedro Francisco Dávila, born in Guayaquil, Ecuador).