The History of Spain - The First Inhabitants Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The History of Spain - The First Inhabitants

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The shield of the History, Philosophy and Spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University. The History of Spain
First Inhabitants | The Roman Era | Visigoths | Moorish Conquest | Christian Reconquest | 1250 - 1450 | Fernando and Isabel
The Spanish Hapsburgs | The Spanish Civil War

Of all the modern nations, Spain has perhaps the most colourful history. There is scarcely time to draw breath as we move from Hannibal to the Moors, Fernando and Isabel to the Armada, and the New World to Franco, in an ever-changing nation. As we do so, we will come across many of the defining moments that shape our views of Spain - the frontier explorers of the Americas, the knights of the Crusade, El Cid and the grandeurs built with New World gold.

So perhaps it is appropriate that we start our journey with a quick cup of coffee in a village in the quiet north-east of Spain.


Atapuerca is a largely unremarkable village. It's just a few miles east of the city of Burgos in Castilla y Léon, but there are few visitors. Occasionally, pilgrims pass through, walking the Camino de Santiago, as they have since medieval times. To these peregrinos it is little more than somewhere to stop for coffee on their great journey. Yet somewhere in the low hills of the Sierra de Atapuerca to the east lies something at least as remarkable as St James' shrine.

After all, St James only died less than two millennia ago. For Atapuerca, 2,000 years is little more than the proverbial blink of an eye. In the last decade of the 20th century, some remarkable finds were made in the hills. In 1994, at Gran Dolina, a collection of human fossils was discovered that was estimated to be 800,000 years old. This new species, homo antecessor, was by far the oldest of all hominid remains found in Europe.

The exact designation of the species is still disputed. Some believe it was an ancestor of homo sapiens, others that it was an evolutionary dead end. But its importance as the oldest evidence of hominids in Europe is not disputed.

As if this were not enough, in 2007 it was announced that a human molar estimated at 1.2 million years old had been found at the same site. It is unlikely we will ever know to which exact species this dental discovery belonged.

This alone would make the Sierra de Atapuerca one of the world's most important archaeological sites, but there is more. Nearby is the Sima de Huesos, Pit of Bones, where over ¾ of the world's mid-Pleistocene human remains have been found. More than 4,000 bones have been excavated altogether, dating from 350,000 years ago. They are classified as homo heidelbergensis, ancestors of the Neanderthals, and were believed to be Europe's oldest race until they were usurped by the discovery of homo antecessor.

Evidence of the Neanderthals themselves has been found in Spain; the remains of 'Gibraltar Woman' are believed to be 35,000 years old. It may be that south-west Iberia1 was their last outpost.

In 2000, the site of the Atapuerca discoveries was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Another World Heritage Site is further north, a little west of Santander. Near the town of Santillana del Mar is a series of caves painted with astonishing figures of bison and boar. The painter mixed their colours using blood, ochre and animal fat, and used a brush made of animal hair. In an extra bit of artistic flair, they considered the contours of the rocky wall they were painting on, incorporating the bumps and insets into the design to give the figures three-dimensional muscular bulges.

Only the lucky may visit the Altamira caves. Just a handful of visitors are allowed in each year to prevent the 15,000-year-old paintings from fading. They are not prehistory's oldest art, but they are its most sophisticated.

The artists of Altamira were probably the Magdalanians, hunter-gatherers who settled in southern France and northern Spain around 18000 BC. As the last Ice Age came to an end 10,000 years later, their game moved north and the Magdalenians dispersed in their wake2. Over the next five millennia very little happened; small tribes arrived from north Africa, but it wasn't until around 3000 BC that civilisation took hold in Iberia.

The First Civilisations

The origins of the Millares culture of Almeria are uncertain, but they were the first people to bring revolutionary Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas to the peninsula. They brought with them farming, animal husbandry, copper-working, boat-building and permanent dwellings. They also brought primitive mysticism in the form of burial mounds called 'dolmens', which appear in great numbers along the southern coast of Spain. The most stunning are those at Antequera, where they arranged 30 huge boulders and three giant pillars to support an impressively weighty stone roof. Interestingly, a legend associated with the Great Barrow Grave of Newgrange in Ireland, dated to the same period, claims that southern 'missionaries' built it. We will never know how far the Millares' influence spread.

We will probably never know much about Tartessos, either. It is known that the Almerian culture faded and the focus of Iberian culture moved east to the Gualdalquivir river around 1500 BC, partly for the fertile land but mostly for the mineral richness of the area. The Bronze Age had just begun, and copper and tin were highly prized.

Tarsettos was known by the Greeks, who wrote that it was an empire of 200 cities. And some believe it to have been founded by survivors from Atlantis3. Another theory holds that Jonah was supposed to travel to Tarsettos - his destination was called Tarshish in the Bible - before being swallowed by the 'fish'. More factually speaking, an ancient wreck was found near the mouth of the Rio Tinto, containing 4,000 bronze weapons and other artifacts; Greeks and Tartessians both told tales of a mythological cattle-baron called Geryon; and the Tartessians left behind fragments of scriptures. Sadly, we do not have enough pieces of the jigsaw to see the picture.

We know much more about the Celts, who began moving into the peninsula around 900 BC. Along with the Iberians, a loose collective noun for a series of tribes concentrated around the south and east coasts, they are considered today to be a fundamental element in the Spanish race. The Celts left little archaeological evidence behind, but they are known to have occupied the central areas (the high plateau known as the meseta) and the north of the country. Among their introductions was wheat beer, and therefore a word known to every British visitor to Torremolinos - cerveza.

This ethnic mix was completed by the Phoenicians, traders from modern-day Lebanon and Israel. Although never powerful in a military sense, they virtually controlled Mediterranean commerce through trading agreements. The Phoenicians brought with them the alphabet, and named the peninsula i-schephan-im, meaning either 'remote' or 'full of rabbits'. Either way, they gave a name to the country they colonised; it was corrupted over the years first to Spania, then Hispania, and finally España.

In around 1100 BC, the Phoenicians founded the city of Gadir, now Cadiz - the oldest city in Europe. As the Phoenicians settled in Andalucía, they clashed with the Tartassians, destroyed the Tartassian fleet and took over many of their trading routes. The coastal Iberians were more welcoming to the newcomers, readily adopting the new Mediterranean culture. While the people around the coast happily drank wine like the traders from the east, tribes in the interior rejected them (and carried on brushing their teeth with urine). The Iberians even used the Phoenician alphabet to record their language, and adopted Phoenician gods.


Phoenicia had problems at home, however. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, got the better of their armies, and by 600 BC a scrabble over the empire's possessions in Iberia had begun. At first the Greeks looked like the favourites; they founded a series of colonies in present-day Cataluña, including the city of Emporion near Girona, as well as a string of trading posts further south. They planted olives and grapes, struck the first coin and introduced sculpture. But their trade expansion was short-lived. Carthage was rapidly becoming a power and was loyal to the Phoenicians who had founded the colony. They defeated the Greeks at the naval Battle of Alalia, off Corsica, and, although Emporion survived as an independent city, trade from Greece to Iberia ceased.

The Carthaginians decided they wanted a monopoly on trade. They now controlled most of Mediterranean waters and, after a request for help from the Phoenician colony at Gadir, destroyed Tartessos completely with their new technology - the battering ram. According to Greek reports, Tartessos 'disappeared, as if sunk into the sea'.

At first the Carthaginians were content to control the profitable Iberian coastal trade, but after defeat in the First Punic War against the Romans, which ended in 241 BC, their country was virtually bankrupt. Iberia presented a profitable opportunity for expansion.

In 237 BC, Hamilcar Barca was sent to Gadir to begin his conquest of southern Spain. The coastal areas were easily subjugated, but as his troops moved inland resistance became stronger. Hamilcar drowned trying to escape from an Iberian assault in 228 BC, and power passed to his son-in-law, Hasdrubal. Hasdrubal's approach was to win over the locals. Initially successful, he founded a city that still carries his family's name - Barcelona - as well as Carthago Nova (now Cartagena). This tactic worked for a while until the locals bored of him; he was assassinated and power passed to one of the most famous military leaders of all.

Hannibal Barca had arrived in Gadir with his father Hamilcar. Like many of his people, he had a virulent hatred of Rome, and had even sworn an oath to destroy it. Suddenly, at the age of 25 and with his father and brother-in-law both dead, he had his chance to fulfil it.

Hannibal would sow the seeds for an empire that would rule Iberia for over six centuries. But it would not be Carthaginian.

1The term used to describe the whole of the peninsula, including modern Spain and Portugal.2One theory suggests a few stayed on, forming the core of the Basque people.3Plato put the date of Atlantis' demise at 1500 BC and the location somewhere near the Straits of Gibraltar.

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