See the fabulous fossils unearthed in a garbage dump

As a landfill expands in Spain, paleontologists are uncovering many ancient species, including some that were the precursors to apes—and us.

The skull of a false saber-toothed cat is cradled by head conservator Xènia Aymerich of the Catalan Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont (ICP). It’s one of more than 70,000 fossils found at the Abocador de Can Mata, a landfill near Barcelona that’s a paleontologists’ paradise.

Fewer places are less welcoming than a garbage dump on a frigid night.

But that’s where paleontologist Josep Robles found himself in December 2019, on the hunt for rare clues to human evolutionary history.

For much of the past couple of months, he’d spent several nights a week at the Abocador de Can Mata, the largest active landfill in the Catalonia region of Spain. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, excavators had been plunging their metal claws into the earth in a rush to create yet another deep pit to hold trash from Barcelona and its surroundings. Robles was one of eight paleontologists on rotation to keep a close eye on the rocky tons of tawny dirt displaced by the diggers.

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