Early Man in Spain
Recently I journeyed to Spain as a volunteer on an Earthwatch Institute expedition Early Man in Spain and participated in the excavation of a site which had then been a hyena den in the Quaternary period (over 1 million years ago). Take a modern day hyena and enlarge it so that it stands six foot at the shoulder, add its head on top and that will provide a rough picture of this mega-fauna monster of the time.
One of the most exciting finds of the dig was made by Principal Investigator, Dr Lluis Gibert Beotas, who muttered mid-sentence 'What's this?', bent down and picked up a fossilised Hyena canine over 8cm long, just lying close to the surface of where the team had been digging the previous morning.
'What's this?' was a question asked daily as the team helped to uncover an enormous variety of animal bones from elephants, horses and rhinos to birds, reptiles and rodents. I especially had hoped to find hyena coprolite, the technical term for fossilised poo. However, that was not to be my luck.
What everyone was ultimately seeking were finds from a hominid, as Lluis regularly preferenced 'the skull', though he said this with such a gracious smile across face, his perseverance steady rather then manic.
Previously the site had delivered a small hominid finger bone and it is hoped that further hominid evidence from this and other sites the researchers had worked on in south-eastern Spain could confidently push back the arrival date of some of our earliest ancestors in Europe. It was an amazing privilege to make even a minute contribution to such a major, perplexing and controversial topic.
The project staff were not only experts in their various fields but were approachable and generous with their knowledge. Dr Gary Scott from the Berkeley Geochronology Centre in the US bore a striking resemblance to Gandalf from 'Lord of the Rings' and not just in appearance, as he was also an amazing mentor. With seemingly inexhaustible patience he discussed mineral properties, astronomy, local politics, how to date finds using palaeomagnetism, as well as tips on how to avoid pick-pocketers in the major cities.
Another highlight of the trip was making good friends with other volunteers and learning from their experiences and strengths. As the Hyde Park Barracks Museum mascot is a rat, given the majority of artefacts were discovered in their nests, I spent many hours helping sort the micro-mammals or smaller fossils and towards the end of my two week stint, became increasingly better at distinguishing tiny mandibles from rodents, bats, birds, lizards and snakes.
In case you are starting to think it was all just work, we enjoyed excursions to the nearby Mediterranean coast of Calblanque natural park where mountains of dark metamorphic rock meet the sea. The coastal scenery here reminded me of Australia's eastern beaches and were equally as stunning.
Several trips to Cartagena also gave tremendous insight into the significance of this port city from one of its earliest incarnations as a trading post mentioned in the Old Testament, to its critical role during the Spanish Civil War. Of course, lunch was always followed with the Spanish tradition of siesta and there were many good times shared socialising and relaxing over sumptuous feasts including tasty cheeses, bread dipped in rich olive oil and classic paellas.
Participating in the excavation at Cueva Victoria has proved not only a personal reward but an investment in my development as a student and exponent of history. If I catch myself flagging in my museum duties or study, I cast my mind back to this Spanish trip and it reignites the sense of excitement and discovery you feel when you launch into something you’ve always dreamed of doing and make a small contribution to unravelling one of the greatest mysteries of our past.
- Jenni White, Volunteer