Elder Homo sapiens of Europe discovered

210, 000 years old skull from Greece is the earliest modern man outside Africa

This partially preserved skull is Europe's oldest homo sapiens fossil. © Katerina Harvati / University of Tübingen
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Spectacular discovery: A fossil from Greece is the oldest homo sapiens find outside Africa. The skull is already 210, 000 years old and thus by far the earliest evidence of a colonization of Europe by our human species. The find reveals that Homo sapiens reached our continent 150, 000 years earlier than previously thought, as the researchers report in the journal "Nature".

The origins of humanity are in Africa. But when did Homo sapiens develop there - and when and on what routes did he conquer the rest of the world? So far there are no definitive answers: Only recently, 300, 000 year old fossils from Morocco proved that our human species existed earlier than thought.

Popular assumptions about the time and routes of the spread of Homo sapiens have been mixed up many times over with new fossil finds - including around 190, 000 years old Homo sapiens relics from Israel. These bones were previously considered the oldest fossils of our species outside of Africa.

Skull find in Greece

But now an even older fossil has appeared outside the home continent of our species: In the so-called Apidima cave complex in the south of the Greek Peloponnese, the fossil skulls of two people were found as early as the 1970s. Their taxonomic classification, however, remained unclear: To which human species belonged these mortal remains?

To clarify this, Katerina Harvati from the University of Tübingen and her colleagues have once again devoted themselves to the fossils Apidima 1 and Apidima 2. They reconstructed the damaged parts of the skull and compared their anatomical properties with other human fossils. They also determined the age of the bones using uranium-thorium dating. display

The second fossil from the Apidima cave complex comes from a Neanderthal man. Katerina Harvati / T bingen University

The oldest Homo sapiens of Europe

The results revealed that Apidima 1 is approximately 210, 000 years old and has a mix of anatomically modern and archaic features. "Apidima 1 shows a round back skull typical of modern humans, " Harvati and her team report. "He lacks, however, despite his age, derived Neanderthal characteristics." In addition, the fossil also differs significantly from early Neanderthals, for example, from the Spanish Sima de los Huesos or the British Swanscombe.

According to the researchers, it must therefore be an early Homo sapiens - and that is a real sensation. Because that would be the fossil of the oldest known modern man outside of Africa. "If our interpretation is correct, then this would be the earliest evidence of the presence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia." For the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in this region was round 40, 000 years old and thus more than 150, 000 years younger.

Where were the first immigrants?

"The skull shows that the earliest modern humans left Africa earlier than expected, and during that early wave of propagation already came astonishingly far, " notes Harvati. Thus, Homo sapiens, on its first emigration from Africa, did not only penetrate as far as the Middle East, as previously assumed. He reached much earlier than thought even the south of Europe.

Strangely enough, where did these first representatives of Homo sapiens remain after their immigration to Europe 210, 000 years ago? Why did not they spread already then? For nowhere else were testimonies of such an early presence of modern man on our continent found.

Displaced by the Neanderthals?

The second skull from the cave complex of Apidima provides a possible answer. Because he is 170, 000 years younger than Apidima 1, but not a modern man. Instead, this fossil can be clearly assigned to the Neanderthals - among other things, by the pronounced overblown, as the researchers report. Accordingly, this cave must have been inhabited again by Neanderthals after the presence of early Homo sapiens.

"According to our hypothesis, early Homo sapiens populations in modern-day Greece were ousted by Neanderthals, whose presence is well documented in the south of the country - and so is Apidima 2 ", explains Harvarti. Thus, Apidima 1 may represent a "failed" immigration although these early representatives of Homo sapiens reached southern Europe, they were unable to remain there. "In the late Paleolithic, about 40, 000 years ago, a new wave of migration of modern humans reached the region and other parts of Europe. This is when the Neanderthals died out, "says Harvati.

Complex propagation pattern

The skulls of Apidima support the assumption that the spread of Homo sapiens across Europe and Asia was much more complex than previously thought. Accordingly, our ancestors probably came not only about 40, 000 years ago, but in several waves of migration to the European continent. Southeastern Europe, like the Levant, could have been an important population center.

If this scenario of the researchers is correct, our picture of the history of our own species has again become richer by a single detail. But last doubts remain: A recent study has identified the two skulls from Greece as a transitional form between European Homo erectus and Neanderthals. "However, our much more extensive investigations do not support this conclusion, " states the team. (Nature, 2019; doi: 10.1038 / s41586-019-1376-z)

Source: Nature Press / University of Tübingen

- Daniel Albat