In the year 2000, D. Gilberto Martinez was in the valley of the Rio Fardes, on the western edge of the Granada Altiplano, near a village called Fonelas. He saw a fossil bone protruding from the side of a small ravine formed by recent rain. Excavations from the year 2001 to the present day are revealing intriguing secrets of the Quaternary period (2.8 mya – 0.012 mya) in the area, and re-raising several questions, particularly concerning the existence of a land bridge, post-Zanclean Deluge, between the southern Iberian peninsula and Morocco. The site is now so important that it is included in the Geoparque Granada Project and a centre has been constructed that all members of the public can visit.
The centre is well signposted, about 4 kilometres outside the village of Fonelas. A sign about halfway between Fonelas and the centre belatedly warns you that it is not advisable to go further if there has been torrential rain. Please take the warning seriously. The centre is in the southernmost semi-desert in Europe, and when it occasionally rains, it washes the track away.
Horizontally arranged oceanic sediments characterise the geology of the area and the site at Fonelas has one of the best quaternary records of Europe. Five million years ago a large lake, the paleo-lake Baza, existed to the east of Fonelas. The lake drained about 500,000 years ago after earthquakes allowed the paleo-river Fardes, that flowed out of the lake in a westwards direction, to be captured by a tributary of the Rio Guadalquivir. During the period the lake existed, the area had a diverse and rich flora that attracted herbivores, predators, scavengers, and, if the human remains, a molar, from Orce, are correctly dated, an early species of humans, from about 1.4 mya.
What has drawn most attention to the Fonelas site are the accumulations of bones from animals that were native to Africa, such as Hyaena brunnea (Brown Hyena) and new species of African genera such as Potamochoerus (a wild pig now native to sub Saharan Africa), Capra (goat) and Canis (wolves, coyotes and jackals). They are showing up in levels that correspond to the Pliocene – Pleistocene boundary, about 2.58 mya. Those species were, apparently co-existing with other large mammals from Asia, such as Canis etruscus (Etruscan wolf), Leptobos etruscus (a large bovine – now extinct), a new species of Praeovibos (a giant muskox, now extinct), and Mitilanotherium (a now extinct early giraffe resembling a modern Okapi).
As this is the only known paleontological record with such a variety of species of such diverse origin, the large-mammal assemblage at Fonelas holds fascinating information for the reconstruction of the main migratory routes and the interrelations between African and Eurasian species. Also, the high scientific interest in this site is due to the fact that, because of the time-scale and combined presence of African and Caucasian species, it is the only site in western Europe similar to the Caucasian site at Dmanisi. Fonelas is, therefore, the first evidence in Europe to allow definition of the paleoenvironmental framework of the Pliocene–Pleistocene transition, when the first humans spread beyond Africa.
It is this exciting correlation of species that has once again raised the question of a land bridge across the Gibraltar Strait sometime since the Zanclean deluge 5.3 mya. The argument being that the African species used the land bridge as a shortcut rather than take the long route via the Middle East. A counter-argument is that the species found at Fonelas actually evolved in Eurasia and then made their way to southern Europe and Africa.
The Brown Hyena now lives in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa and Botswana. It is descended from the Eurasian hyena that traces its ancestry back 26 million years to the Miocene era. When it evolved into a separate species is not known.
A little more is known about Potamochoerus. Its ancestor is likely to have been from Asia sometime in the mid-Miocene, perhaps 12.5 mya. They first appear in Europe in the mid-Pliocene, about 3.5 mya, and in Africa in the middle Pleistocene, about 1.5 mya.
More work needs to be undertaken on the new species of Cabra and Canis found at Fonelas to determine their taxonomy since all the species within those Genera can interbreed.
The last time a land bridge definitely existed between North Africa and Europe was 5.3 million years ago, just before the Zanclean deluge. The Zanclean deluge was an event that destroyed the ridge between Morocco and Spain and resulted in the Mediterranean Sea being once again connected to the Atlantic Ocean.
That a land bridge would be useful to explain migrations of animals and humans between Africa and the Iberian peninsula (or vice versa) at various times over the last 2.6 million years or so (since the start of the most recent Ice Age) is indisputable. However, despite many theories and proposals over the previous 100 years, there is little evidence for such a geological feature. The latest theory to propose a land bridge is known as the Tigliense event. That is supposed to have occurred between 2.5 and 1.8 million years ago and probably, if it happened at all, of very short duration about 2.1 million years ago during an extreme cold spell.
The paleontological sites at Fonelas and Orce will, no doubt, provide more information to fuel the debate.
A geoparque (geopark or geoparc) is a well-defined territory, home to a valuable natural geological heritage. The most important parts of a geoparque, due to their scientific, aesthetic, or educational value, are called geosites.
In the north of Granada, surrounded by some of the tallest mountains of the Iberian peninsula, what we know today as the Basin of Guadix or the Guadix - Baza depression or basin was, for 5 million years, a lake with no outlet to the sea. Sediments, brought down by the mountain streams, were deposited in the basin in horizontal sheets. 500,000 years ago the basin drained to the west and new streams carved out the canyons, ravines and badlands that characterise the area, the most southerly desert in Europe, today.
The archaeological digs around Fonelas are registered as geosites.
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Submitted by Jacque Brown on 9 Dec 2019
I have really enjoyed your articles. Well written! A quick read that is packed full of information about the history and culture of the region and suggestions of things to visit. Looking forward to your next series. Thanks!!
Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.
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