In some cases, in the opposite of the scientific method, folks see fossils, curse, and pretend they aren’t there. Those people are usually the folks trying to build a road, dig a new foundation, or burrow into the ground for any of many other reasons where delays will cost revenue. To prevent these accidental discoveries from getting ignored, many places in the world require a paleontologist or archeologist to be present at construction sites. This has led to a weird situation for one soon-to-be-closed garbage dump and its associated paleontologists in Spain.
The Can Mata landfill in Catalonia, Spain, digs vast pits in sandy soil and then fills these pits with what the locals deride as extremely stinky garbage. During the 24/7 excavation that occurs, researchers from the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Paleontology watch for solid bits in the loose soil and pause the dig on a regular basis to collect bits of bone and sometimes even massive pieces of skeleton. In this garbage dump, the excavation comes as a necessary part of waste storage, and researchers are able to get samples of the past they would otherwise lack the resources to recover.
So far, more than 70,000 fossils have been recovered, including some of the only examples or most complete examples of various early primates that are known. According to an article in National Geographic, their finds include the discovery of what is called a chalicotherium: a tall, knuckle-walking, clawed ungulate that looks like a bizarre mix of giant sloth, bear, horse, and gorilla. They have also found one of the only early flat-faced primates, which researchers think is a sign of convergent evolution leading to head shapes like ours more than once.
While it is a bit terrifying to think about how many fossils are either broken in the excavation of this garbage dump or just plain missed in the rapid digging, what is a bit more horrifying for researchers is the knowledge that local attempts to get this dump closed down could end their ability to recover fossils. Located relatively near Barcelona in a fairly densely populated area, locals have begun protesting the dump and its smell. If the dump is no longer an active waste facility, it will be sealed off for safety, and the paleontologists won’t be able to dig. Not that they’d have the budget for the dig.
This is the kind of science that gives me extremely mixed emotions. Humanity’s production of garbage is vast and environmentally destructive. No one wants to live near a dump, and I feel for these folks. But the science that is being done is amazing. I guess, fundamentally, the sadness comes from the realization that there will always be more funding to dig to build houses, roads, and garbage dumps than there will ever be to just dig for the sake of science.
UAB press release
The priceless primate fossils found in a garbage dump (National Geographic)
“Oldest skeleton of a fossil flying squirrel casts new light on the phylogeny of the group,” Isaac Casanovas-Vilar et al., 2018 October 9, eLife