New skull discovery rewrites history of humans in Europe

James Marshall
July 11, 2019

In the new findings, published in the journal Nature, an global team of researchers used state-of-the art computer modelling and uranium dating to re-examine the skull - one of two found fossilised and badly damaged in the Greek cave.

Researchers have found the earliest example of our species (modern humans) outside Africa.

"Now we have fossil evidence that we might have had African-style modern humans in Europe much earlier than thought previously", said Roksandic, who was not involved in the study.

In the late '70s, scientists discovered two partial skulls embedded in the rock of a coastal cave in southern Greece.

A reconstruction of Apidima 1.

However, a recent study from a multinational team led by Katerina Harvati reconstructed the specimens digitally and dated them by measuring their radioactive decay.

One of them, named Apidima 2 after the cave in which the pair were found, proved to be 170,000 years old and did indeed belong to a Neanderthal. However, there were no other identifiable animal remains or stone tools that Harvati's team could use to double-check those dating estimates.

An worldwide team - including Manchester University experts - created virtual reconstructions of each using state-of-the-art technology.

Instead of throwing these priceless fragments away, they kept them to determine the age of the skulls using a high-tech version of mass spectrometry.

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".

But Mirjana Roksandic, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Winnipeg, said the skull will help scientists in their continuing quest to fit together the puzzle pieces of human evolution. Because of its characteristics, such as a rounded back of the head to associate it to an early Form of Homo sapiens.

It means modern humans developed in multiple regions around the world with groups making their way out of Africa and spreading across parts of Europe and the Middle East.

The incomplete nature of the Apidima 1 skull may leave some experts uncertain about its true origin, wrote Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist from City University of NY, in a commentary that accompanied the study. Of their knowledge after he is 170.000 years old.

Genetic evidence strongly suggests that all the humans alive today can trace their ancestry to groups of modern humans that trudged out of Africa into Eurasia along different directions between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago.

"[The Apidima 1 population] would have been part of this early dispersal that didn't leave a genetic contribution to later Eurasians living today", she said. Then the species that eventually gave rise to Neanderthals moved into Europe between 600,000 and 800,000 years ago.

The oldest-known fossil of a modern human from Africa, the cradle of mankind, dates back some 300,000 years. Modern humans did not replace Neanderthals across Europe until about 45,000 years ago. Over time, these ancestors replaced Neanderthal populations in those areas.

This supports the hypothesis that early modern humans spread out of Africa, where they evolved, multiple times, researchers say. But those early migrants don't appear to have been successful.

The older of the two Apidima skulls does not match the features of the Neanderthals, another extinct human species that once roamed Eurasia, coexisting and possibly interbreeding with modern humans.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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