The First Europeans
When did humans first arrive in Europe? How did they get here, and how did they live? These fascinating questions are addressed by the Earthwatch project Early Man in Spain led by renowned paleontologist father and son team Dr Joseph Gibert Clols and Dr Lluis Gibert.
Volunteers on Early Man in Spain can experience the thrill of unearthing evidence of some of the earliest Europeans and contributing to the knowledge of our origins. They are taught a range of skills including how to excavate a site, clean sediments in order to find small fossils and artifacts, and how to classify any finds they make. During free time, volunteers can arrange visits to traditional markets, a Roman theatre, the archaeological museum and the famous Alhambra Palace, the jewel of Moorish Spain.
The project has focused on two areas of Spain. The first is the Orce region in Granada, which has been described as 'the Okavango of Europe' as it is an exceptional place in Europe to study the last four million years of geological history with over 50 known palaeontological sites, two of which have yielded fragments of human remains thought to be over 1.5 million years old.
The second area is a site called Cueva Victoria, close to the Mediterranean Sea on the east side of San Ginés de la Jara Mountain. This spectacular cave system is filled with sediments and fossils. Both research sites are rich in animal fossil remains over 1 million years old including human bones, and in the case of Orce, many stone tools. The sites are close to Africa and are the earliest known locations in Western Europe with evidence of humans.
Since the Earthwatch project began, knowledge of both sites has been greatly improved and there have been a number of very important finds that have shed light on the first Europeans. The increase in the volume of fossils discovered thanks to Earthwatch volunteers has led to the identification of mammals that have not been recorded in this area before, such as the African giant baboon, Theropithecus oswaldi, which became extinct about 400,000 years ago and was discovered at Cueva Victoria.
This important find was the first time this species had been found outside Africa. Along with other evidence such as hippo and carnivore fossils, this discovery suggests that African mammals (including humans) migrated through Europe more than 1 million years ago. The Giberts believe that Cueva Victoria's location in south east Spain suggests that this migration took place through the Strait of Gibraltar. In future, they intend to initiate a sister project in Morocco to try to prove this theory.
About the sites
The Cueva Victoria research site is located near the Mediterranean coast. A range of interesting landscapes occur in this area, such as the lagoon of Mar Menor and its associated islands and salinas (shallow ponds used to produce salt). These salinas are home to a great diversity of birds, including flamingos. The nearby Mediterranean coast hosts a number of beautiful beaches. One English Earthwatch volunteer loved the area so much she returned a year later with her mother and grandmother, bought a cave in the nearby city of Castillejar and set up a successful 'cave B&B' business!
Volunteers stay in an old farm, La Casa de la Victoria, which has been converted to spacious and comfortable apartments. It is close to the research site, and provides a handy retreat during the hottest hours of the day, when volunteers can cool off in the pool before lunch or take a siesta. Evenings involve a trip to the beach before a late dinner.
Volunteers on the second Earthwatch team (August 6th to the 19th) will have the chance to work at the Orce research site. Orce is a small town with 1,500 inhabitants located in the Altiplano region of Granada. This unspoiled area is a land of contrasts, featuring rugged mountains, wooded valleys and arid deserts and is rich in natural heritage, boasting the national parks Sierra de Cazorla and Sierra de Castril. The region is home to a range of native Iberian fauna including wild boar, griffon vultures, mountain goats, deer and European antelope. At Orce, the team stays close to the research site in three traditional, comfortable cave-houses surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery.