It has emerged that some modern humans left Africa far earlier than previously thought and reached further geographically to settle as far away as Europe.
This comes from a new study which says that a broken skull found in a cave in Greece suggests that it belonged to an individual with anatomically modern features who lived about 210,000 years ago.
This makes the skull the oldest known Homo sapiens fossil in Europe by more than 160,000 years, researchers said in the journal, Nature.
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Southeast Europe has for years been seen to be one of those major migration corridors out of Africa. But until now, the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe dated back only around 50,000 years.
“Our results indicate that an early dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa occurred earlier than previously believed, before 200,000 years ago,” said study leader Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
“We’re seeing evidence for human dispersals that are not just limited to one major exodus out of Africa.”
The skull was found in the late 1970s in Greece’s Apidima Cave. The specimen, described as Apidima 1, was situated just inches apart from a second human-like skull known as Apidima 2. The two skulls were stored in a museum.
As time went on, researchers were able to determine that Apidima 2, which was the more complete of the two skulls, belonged to a Neanderthal. But Apidima 1 was not entirely looked into until recently when the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Athens invited Harvati to apply her skills in imaging and 3-D virtual reconstruction to bring both of the skulls to life, reports LA Times.
Results showed that Apidima 1 predated Apidima 2 by as much as 40,000 years, and was determined to be that of a Homo sapiens. This makes the skull by far the oldest modern human remains ever discovered on the continent, and older than any known Homo sapiens specimen outside Africa.
“This is something that we did not suspect before, and which has implications for the population movements of these ancient groups,” said Harvati.
If some early modern humans left Africa more than 210,000 years ago, they might have settled in the Levant before expanding into Europe, which was already home to Neanderthals, the new study said.
Meanwhile, analysts say such an early presence of early modern humans in Europe is not unlikely. In 2018, a different team of researchers announced the discovery in a cave in Israel of what they say is a Homo sapiens jawbone and teeth from an individual that lived about 177,000 to 194,000 years ago.
Hominins (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, according to a report by the AFP.
Homo sapiens replaced Neanderthals across Europe around 35,000 to 45,000 years ago, in what was said to be a gradual takeover of the continent. However, the skull discovery in Greece suggests that Homo sapiens undertook the migration from Africa to southern Europe on “more than one occasion”, said Eric Delson, a professor of anthropology at City University of New York.
“Rather than a single exit of hominins from Africa to populate Eurasia, there must have been several dispersals, some of which did not result in permanent occupations,” he was quoted by the AFP.
Meanwhile, the study showed that the two partial skulls were not near anything like stone tools, burial signs, among other things that could suggest modern human behaviour.
Some paleontologists, who have come across the research, have raised eyebrows. Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, described the findings as a “one-off” with a date significantly different from what has been earlier documented. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, though, he said.
“Of course there’s got to be a time when you find the first one. But we don’t know yet until we find multiple examples of this,” he was quoted by The Washington Post.
Juan Luis Arsuaga, a Spanish palaeoanthropologist, doubted that the skull was from an early modern human. “The fossil is too fragmentary and incomplete for such a strong claim,” he told The Guardian.
“In science, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs. A partial braincase, lacking the cranial base and the totality of the face, is not extraordinary evidence to my mind.”