In March of 1994 some spelunkers exploring an extensive cave system in northern Spain poked their lights into a small side gallery and noticed two human mandibles jutting out of the sandy soil. The cave, called El Sidrón, lay in the midst of a remote upland forest of chestnut and oak trees in the province of Asturias, just south of the Bay of Biscay. Suspecting that the jawbones might date back as far as the Spanish Civil War, when Republican partisans used El Sidrón to hide from Franco's soldiers, the cavers immediately notified the local Guardia Civil.
But when police investigators inspected the gallery, they discovered the remains of a much larger—and, it would turn out, much older—tragedy.
Within days, law enforcement officials had shoveled out some 140 bones, and a local judge ordered the remains sent to the national forensic pathology institute in Madrid. By the time scientists finished their analysis (it took the better part of six years), Spain had its earliest cold case. The bones from El Sidrón were not Republican soldiers, but the fossilized remains of a group of Neanderthals who lived, and perhaps died violently, approximately 43,000 years ago. The locale places them at one of the most important geographical intersections of prehistory, and the date puts them squarely at the center of one of the most enduring mysteries in all of human evolution.