The caves at Atapuerca, in the Sierras east of Burgos, Castile Leon, have long been regarded as a key site for world palaeontology. At the Gran Dolina site fossils and stone tools of the earliest known hominids in Europe have been found. As recently as June, 2007, what scientists claim to be ‘the first European’ was unearthed, in the form of the jawbone and teeth of a skeleton estimated at between 1.1 and 1.2 million years old.
It is known that modern humans in the form of Cro-Magnons began arriving in the Iberian Peninsula around about 35,000 years ago. The Stone Age hunters at Altamira, near Santander, painted some of Europe’s most sophisticated cave art – colourful paintings of bisons, boars, horses and stags. Another popular Cro-Magnon site still open for people to visit is the Nerja Caves, in Andalucía.
The New Stone Age, the Neolithic era, which brought new technologies such as the plough, pottery and textiles to Spain from Mesopotamia and Egypt, came at around 6000 BC and was followed some 3000 years later by a culture of metalworking, Spain’s first site probably being near Almería at Los Millares, where local copper was made into tools and weapons. It was around this time that the impressive megalithic tombs known as dolmens were constructed – the best preserved examples are those around Antequera, in Andalucía.
The seafaring Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians successively settled along the Mediterranean coastline over a period of centuries, founding various trading colonies. Around 1100 BC, the Phoenicians founded the colony of Gadir – later to become Cádiz, making this impressive and fascinating place probably the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe. Somewhere near Cádiz, perhaps underneath the marshes near the estuary of the Guadalquivir river, was the fabled, immensely wealthy city of Tartessos – Spain’s own lost city of Atlantis. Other colonies known to have been established at this time were the modern day cities of Huelva, Málaga and Almuñécar. It was from the Punic language of the Phoenicians that the modern word of España originates – coming from Isephanim, or the island of the rabbits, which was what the Phoenicians called Andalucía. At around the same time fairer skinned Celts from northern Europe were starting to settle in the north of Spain.
In the 9th century BC the first Greek colonies were founded along the eastern Mediterranean coast, including the modern day Empúries. It was the Greeks who were responsible for the name Iberia, after the river Iber – now known as the Ebro.
In the 6th century, the Carthaginians arrived in Iberia, pushing out the Greeks and establishing Carthago Nova (Cartagena) as their main city alongside Cádiz. The Carthaginians struggled for control of the peninsula with Rome during the Punic Wars of around 260 to 201 BC – which contained the famous, and futile, march of Hannibal and his elephants over the Alps towards Rome.
Although the Romans defeated Carthage, and controlled Spain for 600 years, they took much longer to overcome some of the native tribes. The Basques in northern Spain were especially troublesome to the Romans with the famous siege of Numancia being just one of the many examples of their ferocious resistance. Eventually, by around 50 BC, Hispania had become fairly Roman and was enjoying what was known as the Pax Romana period of stability during which time Hispania provided Rome with food, olive oil, wine, grain, garum (a spicy sauce seasoning) and metals – alongside such notable Spanish born Romans as the emperors Martial and Theodosius I and the philosopher Seneca. Rome, in turn, brought to Spain a road system, aqueducts, theatres, circuses, baths, temples, a legal system and, of course, the basis of the modern Spanish language.
Because Rome organised the peninsula into various sections, there were several distinct principal cities – Cartagena, Córdoba, Mérida and Tarragona. There are Roman ruins worthy of exploration all over Spain perhaps notably at Tarragona, Segovia, Itálica and Mérida – arguably the greatest Roman city outside of Rome.
Avila: Los Toros de Guisando (Celtic stone figures).
Antequera (Malaga): Menga and Viera chambers and Romeral dolmen.
Benaojan (Malaga): La Pileta Cave (Cave art).
Nerja (Malaga): Nerja Caves.
Puente Viesgo (Cantabria): Iberian images at the Castillo Cave outdate Altamira.
Santillana del Mar (Cantabria): Altamira Cave