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Europe’s Oldest Human Fossil Found – 210,000 Years Old

Nancy Bilyeau

The oldest human fossil in Europe and the oldest outside of Africa has just been identified. Just about 210,000 years ago, an early human died in Greece — and provided 21st century scientists with the earliest evidence of human migration out of Africa. A new theory is forming, that multiple early migrations out of Africa, rather than a single event, helped early humans spread. Southeast Europe could have been a major migration corridor out of Africa.

In 1978, two skulls were found in a block of breccia, or broken fragments of rock and fossil cemented together, wedged between the walls of the Apidima Cave in southern Greece. The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens was conducting research.

The breccia was dated to between 100,000 and 190,000 years old at the time. “The skulls were not removed from the breccia and remained at the museum,” according to CNN. “Given the fragmentary nature of the skulls, they were difficult to remove and clean, though that eventually happened in the 1990s.”

Oldest human fossil in Europe
Scientists say the skull fragment belonged to an early human, found in a cave in southern Greece. Photograph: Katerina Harvati, Eberhard Karls/University of Tübingen

The specimen, dubbed Apidima 1, was situated nose to nose just 12 inches away from a second human-like skull known as Apidima 2.The two partial skulls were not near anything that offered archaeologists useful clues about their origin: no stone tools, no animal remains, nothing. In time, researchers figured out that Apidima 2, the more complete of the two skulls, belonged to a Neanderthal.

Analysis of Apidima 1, which was in pieces, had to wait until the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Athens invited Katerina Harvati, director of paleoanthropology at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, to use her expertise in imaging and 3-D virtual reconstruction to bring both of the skulls to life.

Oldest human fossil in Europe
Apidima 1 (left) is a modern human; Apidima 2 (right) is a Neanderthal. Photo by Katerina Harvati / Eberhard Karls UNIVERSITY OF TÜBINGEN

Apidima 1 has features that distinguish it as a modern human. Scientists say its owner lived some 40,000 years before its Neanderthal neighbor, making it the oldest human skull found outside of Africa.

Smithsonian said, “Tellingly, the Apidima 1 fossil lacks a ‘chignon,’ the distinctive bulge at the back of the skull that is characteristic of Neanderthals. The posterior of the skull is also rounded, which ‘is considered to be a uniquely modern human feature that evolved relatively late,’ Harvati says.”

This finding has many ramifications. “This discovery may add a wrinkle to the commonly accepted timeline of modern humans’ dispersal from Africa and arrival in Europe,” said Smithsonian.” It is widely accepted that our species evolved in Africa—the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils were found in Morocco and date back 315,000 years ago—and first ventured out of the continent between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago.  All the while, Neanderthals were evolving in Europe. Homo sapiens are thought to have arrived on the scene around 45,000 years ago, interbreeding with Neanderthals and eventually emerging as the dominant species.”

Video: Hybrid Neanderthal Girl Shows Proof of Human Species Interbreeding

The study about the discovery published in Nature said that that although the two skulls were found so close to each other, they were from vastly different time periods. The rock surrounding Apidima 1 was estimated to be about 210,000 years old, while the rock around Apidima 2 was only 170,000 years old. The best explanation, said study co-author Rainer Grun, a geochemist at Griffith University in Australia, is that “Apidima 1 must come from quite a different environment originally, before it was deposited at the site.”

Some scientists believe that when modern humans expanded out of Africa, their movements into Europe might have been stalled by the Neanderthals. This could explain why Homo sapiens stuck to a more southerly route into Asia, and why they left no European fossils until about 40,000 years ago. “The idea of Europe as ‘fortress Neanderthal’ has been gaining ground,” said an archaeologist from the University of Bordeaux, but identifying a 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull from Europe “really undermines that.”

Related Article: This is What a Neanderthal’s Voice Might Have Sounded Like

“It suggests that early Homo sapiens groups got farther than we may have previously thought, occasionally occupying territories that later became that of Neanderthals,” adds Shara Bailey, an anthropologist at NYU. “Findings like this are very important for informing us on the evolution of our species.”