Science

Emiliano Aguirre, a key figure in human paleontology


Emiliano Aguirre, en una fotografía de archivo.
Emiliano Aguirre, in a photograph File. EDUARDO ABAD / EFE

Spanish paleontology is in mourning, Emiliano Aguirre has left us, a figure of extraordinary stature, known as the father of Atapuerca. With a long and diverse career, his undisputed contribution to the development of science in Spain earned him unanimous recognition in the form of awards and distinctions. And those of us who have had the pleasure of working with him have benefited from his inexhaustible energy, knowledge, encouragement and academic generosity.

Emiliano Aguirre Enríquez was born in Ferrol, Spain. At the end of high school, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1942 , in which he acquired a solid training in the humanities. His degree in Natural Sciences was obtained at the Complutense University of Madrid in 1955. Later he received his doctorate from the same university with the study of dental morphometry of fossil elephants. Aguirre was Professor of Paleontology at the University of Zaragoza (1978 – 1982) and at the Complutense University (1982 – 1984), before taking up a position as Research Professor at the Museum National Natural Sciences of Madrid (CSIC) (1984 – 1990). Since the year 2000 he was an ordinary member of the Royal Spanish Academy of Mathematics, Physics and Natural Sciences. Promoter of paleontological research and devoted to the study of human evolution, his work must be understood in the political context of the recent history of Spain.

Promoter of paleontological research and devoted to study of human evolution, his work must be understood in the political context of the recent history of Spain.

During the first years of his career (late decade of 1950 and 1960 ), Aguirre tirelessly promoted conferences, scientific meetings and publications on evolution, at a time when the Franco regime, which advocated national Catholicism, made it difficult to advance any study on evolution, and even less on human evolution. However, Aguirre, as a member of the Society of Jesus (1942 – 1974), was able to “work from within” and promote studies on natural history human, following in the footsteps of another great mammalian paleontologist, Miquel Crusanfont. Emiliano – as we all called him that – excavated numerous Neogene, Pleistocene and Holocene sites both in Spain and abroad.

Among 1961 and 1961 worked with Clark Howell in the Middle Pleistocene deposits of Torralba and Ambrona (Spain), implementing new multidisciplinary methodologies in their field work. In 1963 participated in the Spanish Archaeological Salvage Mission in Nubia, which involved the study of the human remains from the Argin necropolis (Sudan). During 1968 he was awarded a Wenner-Gren Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for the study of hominid fossils in South Africa, and for prospecting in the Tuben Hills (Kenya) as part of a project with Louis Leakey. Thus, at a time when few Spanish scientists traveled abroad, Emiliano dedicated himself to establishing contacts with the great names in world paleontology. In 1974, a momentous year, Emiliano obtained a research position at the CSIC and left the Jesus company. In 1975 he married Carmen Bule. Of special importance in Aguirre’s career was, without a doubt, the Atapuerca Project, which he designed and directed from its beginnings in 1975 until 1990, when he retired. Together with the entire research team, Aguirre received the Prince of Asturias Award for Science and Technology in 1997 and in November 2000 the Atapuerca complex was declared a World Heritage Site.

Emiliano Aguirre has been the great architect of overcoming the limiting factors of human paleontology in Spain: the hackneyed backwardness of science in our country, the secular absence of human fossils and the secular ideological antagonism between creationism and the materialist interpretation of human evolution

But Aguirre’s stature acquires its dimension from a historical perspective. Emiliano Aguirre has been the great architect of overcoming the limiting factors of human paleontology in Spain: the hackneyed backwardness of science in our country, the secular absence of human fossils, and the secular ideological antagonism between creationism and the materialist interpretation of human evolution. Starting with the last, Emiliano always maintained an evolutionary process to explain the human being, leaving personal beliefs for a more intimate sphere. Aguirre’s Catholic education did not limit his way of thinking, and he always transferred to his many disciples a critical attitude based on the examination of the available scientific evidence.

Regarding the lack of human fossils in Spain, Aguirre set in motion the most spectacular mechanism of Spanish science in Quaternary sciences -the Atapuerca project- and with it the foundations of a scientific and heritage building of the first order. But perhaps even more important was his attitude to the hackneyed backwardness of our science. Faced with the discovery of the first human remains in Atapuerca, and faced with the desert of specialists in paleoanthropology, there were two possibilities: to give specialists from other countries to study such valuable heritage or to train a group of students to take care of it. And in this Emiliano bet hard, and at risk, for the training of specialists from the quarry. And wow he got it. Without the figure of Emiliano Aguirre, the study of human evolution in Spain cannot be conceived.

Antonio Rosas González is a Research Professor at the CSIC and a member of the Paleoanthropology group MNCN-CSIC

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