Skull places humans in Europe much earlier
Fossil discovery predates earliest evidence of Homo sapiens on the Continent by more than 160,000 years
New research on an ancient skull found in a cave in Greece suggests our human ancestors left Africa 150,000 years earlier than previously thought. The skull belonged to a member of an early population of Homo sapiens and is about 210,000 years old – making it the oldest example of modern human remains ever discovered in Europe. Found in the Seventies, it was initially identified as Neanderthal before new techniques allowed for further analysis.
AN ANCIENT skull found in a cave in Greece suggests our human ancestors left Africa 150,000 years earlier than previously thought.
It belonged to a member of an early population of Homo sapiens and is about 210,000 years old – making it the oldest example of modern human remains ever discovered in Europe.
The skull was found in the cave in the Seventies and was initially identified as Neanderthal.
But new techniques have allowed for further analysis and it predates the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe by more than 160,000 years.
“It shows that the early dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa not only occurred earlier – before 200,000 years ago – but also reached further geographically, all the way to Europe,” said Katerina Harvati, a palaeoanthropologist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen, in Germany.
“This is something that we did not suspect before, and which has implications for the population movements of these ancient groups.”
The findings support the idea that Homo sapiens made several, sometimes unsuccessful, migrations from Africa over tens of thousands of years.
An international team of researchers used computer modelling technology and uranium dating to re-examine the skull – one of two found fossilised and badly damaged in the Greek cave. One of them, named Apidima 2 proved to be 170,000 years old and did indeed belong to a Neanderthal.
But, to the surprise of scientists, the second skull, named Apidima 1, predated Apidima 2 by up to 40,000 years, and was determined to be that of a Homo sapiens, the journal Nature reported.
Hominids – a subset of great apes that includes Homo sapiens and Neanderthals – are believed to have emerged in Africa more than six million years ago. They left the continent in several migration waves starting about two million years ago.
The oldest known African fossil attributed to a member of the Homo family is a 2.8 million-year-old jawbone from Ethiopia.
Homo sapiens replaced Neanderthals across Europe up to 45,000 years ago in what was long considered a gradual takeover of the continent involving coexistence and interbreeding.
But the skull discovery in Greece suggests that Homo sapiens undertook the migration from Africa to southern Europe on “more than one occasion”, according to Eric Delson, a professor of anthropology at City University of New York. “Rather than a single exit of hominids from Africa to populate Eurasia, there must have been several dispersals, some of which did not result in permanent occupations,” he said.
Ms Harvati said advances in dating and genetics technology could continue to shape our understanding of how our prehistoric ancestors spread throughout the world.
“I think recent advances in palaeoanthropology have shown that the field is still full of surprises,” she said.