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Interview with Eudald Carbonell
"A single tooth allows us to tell the story of a world"
March 2014 / By Clia Roca
Australia, Croatia, Eritrea, Spain, the United States, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Tajikistan, Tanzania, China . . . These are just some of the corners of the planet where archaeologist, palaeontologist and University Rovira i Virgili (URV) professor Eudald Carbonell Roura (born in Ribes Freser, Girona in 1953) has unearthed part of our past. Now the new URV-UOC bachelor's degree in Anthropology and Human Evolution, designed and taught by the two universities in blended learning and online modes, invites us to explore this wealth of knowledge. Carbonell's role as co-director of the Atapuerca archaeological sites requires him to live in Burgos, but in February he was in Barcelona to take part in the presentation ceremony for the new degree course.

How do you approach the challenge of teaching a discipline based on fieldwork with the help of ICT, as will be the case at the UOC?

That's an interesting question. Knowledge can be transmitted orally or using new technologies, but it will always be necessary to go into the field to put it into practice. This course can be taken online, but it also needs to have a face-to-face component to be complete. In fact, the course focuses on scientific and technical training rather than philosophical issues.

So students will have a chance to do practicals over the course of the programme?

Indeed. It's essential to have practical sessions that let students get hands-on experience with everything they've learned on the course. We can offer them the opportunity to participate in some of the excavations we're involved in around the world, but they'll also be able to seek out for themselves ways of getting first-hand experience related to the knowledge they've gained.

Paradoxically, innovation and ICT will help students look back at the past. How does society benefit from knowledge about our origins?

We need to look at the past to learn about a broad range of human experiences: historical, social, economic, ecological . . . These are empirical and experiential events that actually happened, and they provide us with a lot of information that can be used to develop protocols that could play a useful role in dealing with situations similar to those that occurred in the past. This is essential for social knowledge and learning, both from a historical perspective and going forward. That's why these ideas should be within everyone's reach.

So we can learn from the mistakes of the past thanks to archaeology and palaeoanthropology?

Yes. The archaeological remains give us an insight into overexploitation of ecosystems, fratricidal wars . . .

Or into uprisings of certain social classes, as in the case of the Argar culture in Almeria . . .

Exactly. Hierarchies are needed to organize our species, but sometimes they can make people feel they're not represented in a system. This leads to failure, the collapse of certain models of social organization, and internal clashes. History teaches us to adapt to ecological circumstances.

You recently published a book entitled El arqueólogo y el futuro [Archaeologists and the Future] - two seemingly opposed concepts . . .

I think about the future because ultimately our descendents are part of this historical continuum. And what archaeologists search for is precisely the key to continuity, as I discussed years ago in my book Las claves del pasado. La llave del futuro [Unlocking the Past: The Key to the Future] (2000). This key lies in human interactions, which are manifested in all known phenomena.

Let's talk about Atapuerca. Last year a project was launched to link the Sima de los Huesos [Pit of Bones] to the Gran Dolina. How is that going?

We want to establish a link between the Sima de los Huesos, which is about half a million years old, and the railway trench sites, which date to around the same time - between 400,000 and 500,000 years ago. Our aim is to determine whether the people buried at the Sima de los Huesos were the same ones who lived at the Gran Dolina. By linking the paleontological and archaeological records for the two sites, we can shed light on what everyday life was like for these people and learn about their burial practices. We're working on it and hope to see results in two or three years.

The second oldest human fossil in Europe was found at the Gran Dolina, and the oldest mitochondrial DNA in the world was extracted from samples collected at the Sima de los Huesos. Are there more surprises in store for us?

I hope so. The Atapuerca site has some very special characteristics. The findings you mention are the most recent ones, but there have been many others, including the oldest hominid in Europe - Homo antecessor - the earliest evidence of human cannibalism, and the earliest accumulation of human remains we know of. Together with the fossil tooth located in Orce [Granada], the sites have yielded the oldest specimens on the continent.

What do the fossilized bones tell us?

They allow us to study biocenosis, the behaviour of living beings in a specific environment; thanatocoensis, understood as the process of their death; and taphocoenosis, the fossilization process and the formation of fossil deposits. All organisms, alive or dead, provide us with information. For example, if a bone fell into water, it's marked in a certain way. And if it was bitten by an animal, there will be physical evidence of that. A fossil allows us to reconstruct the context in which its owner lived. That's what they call reverse engineering.

A tooth like the one found at Orce must be like an open book . . .

Yes. It can tell us what kind of water there was in the area many years ago, about the diet of the specimen to which it belonged, whether it experienced stress during its development, whether it went hungry . . . It also provides us with information on all kinds of genetic patterns. A single tooth allows us to tell the story of a world.

You've worked on sites around the world. Which one is most special to you?

Perhaps Atapuerca. I've been working on it for 35 years! Working on digs in Mexico, Central Asia and Eritrea ? where there are very ancient sites that give us an insight into the origin of humanity ? was also a very special experience. Anyway, I have the feeling I've come to the end of a cycle. I've got 10 years left to go before I retire. Over that time I hope to make discoveries and do work that will help fill in our vision of humanity.

You never stop.

Right now I'm working on a load of projects - too many. Perhaps I should take on less work. Though I am focusing on Atapuerca, which is the most important project.

Catalonia is particularly rich in Iberian and Roman archaeological sites. How is archaeology holding up in the region?

In fact, my first archaeological internship was in Empúries. I've worked mainly on prehistoric sites, but the region is extraordinarily rich in historic and protohistoric sites. Catalonia is in the Mediterranean and it's a transit zone. That makes it an ideal place to do archaeological work. Despite the difficult economic situation, sites dating from many different periods are being excavated. It's important to pursue these projects, because there's a lot of history waiting to be discovered in Catalonia.

These are hard times for research and culture. Do you think the various levels of government are sufficiently aware of the importance of these areas?

Governments have always been very reserved when it comes to investing in archaeology. They've always prioritised social issues and infrastructure projects. Anyway, governments that don't allocate money to the study of history are making a mistake, because the education people get is what makes a country different.

What's left for Eudald Carbonell to do?

Going back to Eritrea, where we're trying to find the oldest hominids in the world and their industries. And teaching again, because up until now I've focused on research, on the cluster of Atapuerca sites. My life project is to tell other people about what I've learned, what I know - to share all this and help integrate knowledge in the future of our species. Experience is very important. It's the basis for explaining phenomena. That's why it's important to pass it on to others.

In that sense, I imagine universities play an essential role.

Yes. Apart from the knowledge they impart, universities pass on a message of perseverance to young people. Human evolution is part of a basic intellectual process, which should be addressed in faculties of both arts and sciences.

 

Profile

  • PhD in Quaternary Geology, Pierre and Marie-Curie University (1986)
  • PhD in History, University of Barcelona (1988)
  • Director of the Catalan Institute for Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES)
  • Professor of Prehistory at Rovira i Virgili University (URV) since 1999
  • Principal researcher with the Human Autoecology of the Quaternary Group at the URV
  • Co-director of the Atapuerca archaeological sites in Burgos since 1991
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