Orce is a small village with a population of about 1,400 in Granada Province in the Municipality of Huescar. It is roughly 150 kilometres north east of Granada, almost on the border with Almeria, at an altitude of 926 metres. In winter the temperature can fall to 00C and in summer is usually in the high 20s. A small amount of rain falls in spring and the rest is scattered through the year. Traditionally the local economy centres on livestock, particularly the segureña lamb, renowned for its succulence and flavour, and agriculture. The vision of a green and pleasant land with lambs and sheep gambolling in lush pastures however is far from reality. The land is dry, dusty and deeply riven by dry gullies between ancient cliffs that, millions of years ago, formed the shores of a vast lake. It is after all situated on the edge of Europe’s only semi arid zone. For all that the landscape is breathtaking simply because of its inhospitable nature.
Despite its inhospitable setting today the region has been the home of humans in one form or another for, if the current research is correct, at least 1.2 million years and possible over 1.5 million years. It deserves, and may well achieve, the same importance as Olduvai Gorge in Africa and Atapuerca and Altamira closer to home in northern Spain and even closer, Gibraltar, one of the last refuges of Neanderthals.
For the moment though Orce is a typical high, dry plains village in Andalucia. It has a castle, the Alcazaba de las Siete Torres, the Castle of Seven Towers, that was started in the 6th Century AD and finished in the 16th. Clustered round the castle is the village itself with a square and a few bars and restaurants that feature the famous segureña lamb on the menus. Nearby is El Cerro de la Virgen, the hill of the virgin, the site of a Bronze Age settlement. Nearby too are the archaeological sites of Barranco Leon, Venta Micena and Fuentenueva 3 and it is these sites that will finally put Orce on the map. Many of the invaluable finds from these sites are displayed, with excellent explanations in Spanish only, in the museum at Orce that is situated in what was once a grand house in the centre of the village. To start the true story of Orce you have to go back a couple of million years.
Over many thousands of years the climate in any one area has changed many times. As previously arid lands become wetter and cooler so grasses, shrubs and eventually trees, colonise that land. Conversely as the weather becomes dryer and warmer so the trees give way to shrubs, then grasses and finally desert. This all happens in oscillating waves, think of the waxing and waning of the moon except over hundreds of thousands of years.
As the leading edges of the vegetation belts expand so to do the animals that prefer that particular environment. Following those animals, herbivores, come the hunters and scavengers, the big cats, hyenas and humans. None are aware of this dispersal, they are simply staying, over many generations, within their own comfort zone. It has been shown that many dispersals originated in Africa. As climate changed the green zones expanded north and east into the Middle East and from there into southern Europe, spreading into northern Europe and into Asia as far as China. Populations of animals moved with those zones and dispersed and spread into Europe and Asia.
Back to Orce. Between 2 million and 1.5 million years ago, megafauna from Africa arrived in the area along with predators and scavengers. They had all taken advantage of a climate change to disperse through the Middle East. Following them came humans. The landscape they saw was very different to that of today. The climate was much wetter and probably a little cooler than present day. The depression at Orce was a large lake, Lake Baza, surrounded by reeds and lush vegetation. The predominant vegetation was not dissimilar to the Mediterranean flora we see today, cyprus, oak, wild olive and pine trees. In addition there were plants that required more water and they would be in the gullies and ravines, birch, hazel, holly, ash and privet. You can still see that mix of vegetation in the nearby Sierra de Cazorla. On the margins of the lake there were willows and elms. There were also some trees not seen today in this part of Spain, cedar and red fir. Beneath the trees the herbaceous plants consisted of mugwort, plantain, thistles, flowering plants of the crucifera family and various grasses.
Grazing on these plants were the hertbivores. Archaeologists have found fossilised bones from many different species of herbivore. At least five species of deer lived in the woodland and grasslands, one an extinct giant named Megaceroides solilhacus that stood over 2 metres tall at the shoulder. Closer to the lake in the scrub and shallows would be found more megafauna. An extinct mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) that stood 4 metres tall at the shoulder, one of the largest proboscideans ever to live, native to Europe and Asia, an extinct European Hippopotamus, rhinoceros, a one toed horse, and a number of large grazers such as the wild ox. In the woods were also a number of species of bear and a crested porcupine. This rich hunting ground naturally attracted the predators such as a sabre toothed cat, an extinct species of dog, Lycaon lycainoides known as the African wolf, that preyed on horses, deer and perhaps humans, and large scavengers. Smaller mammals spread throughout the landscape were hedgehogs, shrews, water rats, mice, voles and rabbits. Reptiles and amphibians were also abundant. Reptiles included the Iberian skink and a number of snakes. A rich scavenging ground indeed for the early humans that occupied this area.
Evidence of humans comes in two forms. Evidence of human activity and fossilised pieces of human bone. Two pieces of the human anatomy have been found, an upper molar tooth and a piece of skull. The latter is still unconfirmed, some say it is part of an equine skull, although the Orce team seem fairly adamantit is humanoid. The age of the artifacts was determined a number of ways and the results showed they were 1.4 million years old. Evidence of human activity came from two sources, manufactured stone tools of a style known as Oldowan, and fossilised animal bones showing striation marks made by stone tools. These were also tested for age and the results were in the same range as those for the tooth. Further circumstantial evidence is provided by the biozone, the macro and micro faunal and flora which is what would be expected in the area at the time.
Who were these humans? By 1.9 million years ago Homo erectus was firmly established in East Africa. Due to climatic changes discussed above a window of opportunity, a green comfort zone, expanded from the south and east into central Africa and finally into the northeast and into the Middle East where they merged with similar green zones expanding from the east through Iraq and Iran and from the north and west from Europe. Early forms of Homo erectus, or later forms of Homo habilis, were the first hominids to disperse out of Africa in this way. So what did these early Homo erectus that arrived on the shores of Lake Baza look like? The fact is nobody knows exactly. 1,244 stone artefacts have been discovered along with animal bones displaying striation marks associated with just one human tooth, until the skull bone is confirmed human then we have to ignore it. These finds have been dated to 1.4 mya making them the oldest proof of human activity in western Europe. The tooth naturally, has been subject to intense scrutiny, analysis and examination. Features of the tooth were found that are displayed in those of the genus Homo and Australopithecus but not in Paranthropus. Other features are found in Paranthropos and also in early Homo as well as Homo heidelbergensis. Whoever they were the hominids that lived on the shores of Lake Baza scavenged for their meat rather than hunted. Their diet consisted primarily of seeds, nuts and tuberous roots. No evidence of the use of fire has yet been found. Their toolkit took the simplest form, the Oldowan. Flakes of rock were struck off a core. The results were used as multi purpose tools rather than trying for one design to perform one job. So who were they, were they early Homo erectus or late Homo habilis or even Australopithecus? The jury is still out.