Science is not fun

Opinions personals de membres del CEHIC i alumnes de postgrau

abr. 05 2011

Digging up the past: The difference between Atapuerca and the “fosas” of the Spanish Civil War

Posted in General |

Last week I went to the CCCB to follow the “Debate ‘Desaparecidos’: El caso de las fosas comunes de la Guerra Civil y el franquismo”. One of the speakers was the well known paleopathologist Francesco Etxeberria who plays a leading role in the exhumation of the victims of the Spanish Civil War. In one of his many slices Etxeberria displayed a drawing by Eneko Las Heras (20 minutos), one may even call it a cartoon, that showed two assemblages of bones under the earth: close to the surface the ones of the victims of the Spanish Civil War, the other, down deeper, the fossils of Atapuerca. Etxeberria wanted to point out that Spain certainly has the scientific and technologic expertise to excavate. But it is only been done in the case of the prestigious hominid site of Atapuerca where millions of Euros are spent while the excavation of the mass graves of the Civil War remains difficult and is impeded by financial difficulties but above all by a lack of political support. The verdict of the “debate” was clear: shame on Spanish politicians, academics, journalists and judges for being silent on the issue of the fosas and not giving the victims their due.
This verdict as such may not be new. What made me pause was the image with the two assemblages of bones. The Spanish seem to be much more interested in hominid fossils that are 800.000 years old than in human remains from 1936. High-ranking politicians and members of the royal family are frequent guests in Atapuerca. I am not aware that Aznar, Zapatero, the Prince of Asturias of Queen Sofía ever assisted the excavation of a mass grave. The only visits Etxeberria ever gets are policemen checking on him.
And there is a reason for this. Atapuerca provides a narrative of origin that is seemingly innocent and not liable to stir controversies – “ideal” for a country such as Spain that is still struggling with the deeply divisive experience of the civil war and of nearly forty years of an ultranationalist dictatorship. It seems to me that one of the reasons for the success of the Atapuerca project is precisely that it steered clear of all issues and imagery that addressed the divisions that still vex the country. Set back in deep time the Homo antecessor can provide a “neutral” frame of reference. The fossils that date back 800.000 years or more are not charged with any of the divided and contested much more recent past. Therefore, in a sense, they seem to be far more apt to represent a “common” beginning.
In both cases scientist do a similar job. They dig in order to find human bones. Once they found the remains they try and find out who these people were. Were they male or female, young or old? And they want to know how they died. The fossils of Homo antecessor show scratch marks that make the paleoanthropologists believe that they were eaten by their human enemies. In the case of the victims of the Civil War the researchers want to establish whether they were shot or clubbed to death. Yet while the discovery of the Atapuerca team is hailed as the first incident of cannibalism the brutal butchery of the Civil War is nothing but sad. Spain may have found a new beginning of its history in Atapuerca but the recent past remains unresolved.

This entry was posted on dimarts, 5 abril, 2011 at 17:07 and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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