Tech UPTechnology70,000 fossils found in the garbage

70,000 fossils found in the garbage

The bulldozers are sinking their teeth to open holes in which to dump more garbage. Like seagulls on a fishing boat, paleontologists keep a close eye on each scoop of the crane, searching for treasure. Tons of dirt raise clouds of dust that mix with the smell of rot. When paleontologists see a piece of land with the possibility of containing fossil remains, they stop the work of the excavator and go deeper into the hole. Sometimes they simply mark the area as suitable for further exploration. But other times (and there are many) they come across fossils that are more than 10 million years old

A landfill full of fossils

In Els Hostalets de Pierola , about 50 km northwest of Barcelona, is the largest landfill in Catalonia: Can Mata . Since 2002, paleontologists from the Miquel Crusafont Institute of Catalan Paleontology , of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, have found more than 70,000 fossils from the Middle Miocene , that is, with dates ranging between 12.5 and 11 million years ago . The name of the Institute of Paleontology, obviously, is not trivial. At the end of the 1940s, Miquel Crusafont found the jaw and teeth of a great Miocene ape in the area of the current dump. Later, more discoveries were made and the place ended up being established as a paleontological site.

Paradoxes of the human being, this did not prevent the space from beginning to function as a landfill : informally since 1970 and legally a decade later. Already in the 21st century, the Spanish Historical Heritage Law prevented Cespa Waste Management, the company in charge of the landfill, from burying the fossils under tons of garbage . The solution for the landfill and fossil deposit to work at the same time was to hire paleontologists to work alongside the bulldozers in charge of making room for the garbage that constantly arrives in trucks.

unique primates

In 2002, weeks after specialists from the Catalan Paleontology Institute had been surveying the land, they found the tooth of a dinotherium , a relative of elephants, and a fragment of a finger . A short time later some fragments appeared in a block of sediments. “Very nervous, we turned it over”, said David Alba , one of the supervising paleontologists, “and there was the face of Pierolapithecus , looking at us. It was one of the best moments of my life.” At 12 million years old, one of the most complete primate skeletons from the Miocene appeared in Can Mata. They called him Pierolapithecus catalanicus , Pau for those who want to trust him.

In 2004, Lluc appeared, another hominoid from about 12 million years ago. The species was named Anoiapithecus brevirostris , since its face had less protuberant features than the rest of its cousins found, so its fossil was much more reminiscent of the face of the genus Homo . In 2011 it was the turn of Laia , a female of Pliobates cataloniae , with 11.6 million years.

These findings were unique. Fossils of primate species only seen in Can Mata, ancestral hominoids, the great-great-grandparents of gorillas and chimpanzees, the deepest roots of our origins . Can Mata has been key in demonstrating that the diversity of primates that lived during the Miocene is greater than previously thought. Treasures taken from the garbage that help unravel the past of our species.

But Can Mata has not only found outstanding primate fossils. In more than a decade of excavations, at least 75 species of mammals have been recognized, including deer, elephants, flying squirrels and even giant pandas. One of the most curious finds was that of a Chalicotherium , the strange fusion between a gorilla and a giant horse with the claws of a bear.

To close or not to close the landfill

Of course, there is no shortage of demonstrations against Can Mata. No one wants to live next to a landfill, and in 2019, paleontologists were working with protesters at the gate of the landfill/site holding signs that read “ Volem respirar en pau ” (we want to breathe in peace). The tension posed a problem for paleontologists. “If they stopped digging, we would have to stop monitoring the activity”, commented David Alba, “although we would probably continue exploring the area from time to time, we would never recover as many fossils as when they build the dump . I understand that no one likes to have a dump nearby, but from a paleontological heritage point of view, the dump contributes enormously to science .”

Despite everything, in a vote in March 2021, the option to extend the life of the landfill until 2030 won. We will see what happens later with the deposit. The staff has increased, but the number of fossils found is overwhelming, so many of them have only been preserved and stored, waiting their turn to bring us more answers about our past.

land pages

Can Mata and Atapuerca They are two of our jewelers in the country, because in a small space they concentrate relatively continuous remains over hundreds of thousands of years. Just as an archivist squeezes information from forgotten documents on shelves, paleoanthropologists decipher the earthen pages of these sites to continue writing the book of human evolution.

References:

Alba, D. M. et all. 2015. Miocene small-bodied ape from Eurasia sheds light on hominoid evolution. Science 350, 6260. DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2625.

Alba, D. M. et all. 2017. Ten years in the dump: An updated review of the Miocene primate-bearing localities from Abocador de Can Mata (NE Iberian Peninsula). Science Direct 102, 12-20. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2016.09.012.

Moyà-Solà, S. et all. 2009. A unique Middle Miocene European hominoid and the origins of the great ape and human clade. PNAS 106 (24) 9601-9606. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811730106.

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