March 27, 2008

Humans Lived in Europe 1.2 Million Years Ago

Recent findings show evidence that humans lived in Europe up to 1.2 million years ago, about 400,000 years more than was previously estimated.

The jawbone discovered at the archaeological site of Atapuerca, now part of modern-day Spain, represents that of the oldest known human inhabitants of Europe.

Along with the jawbone, they found teeth and basic tools in the cave near the city of Burgos. The bone's small size indicates that it could have belonged to a female.

The caves of Sierre de Atapuerca have been a continuous source of well-detailed ancient human evidence. Two other nearby locations have also revealed other remains of early Europeans.

Andreu Olle, who has worked at the Atapuerca site since 1980, said the findings are accurately dated and bring added clarity to the issue of how early humans first lived in Europe. The bones are similar to fossils found at the site in 1994, which were dated to be 800,000 years old, suggesting that humans lived in the region for a long period of time.

"These are the oldest human remains in Europe. With this fossil, we can say it (Europe) was populated earlier than was thought," he said.

Three different tests were used to date the new fossils: palaeomagnetism, cosmogenic nuclide dating and biostratigraphy.

Previously collected evidence in Spain, France and Italy proved that humans lived in Europe up to 1 million years ago, but no actual human remains had been uncovered until now.

The fossil is thought to be of the "Homo antecessor" species, which shared common ancestors with modern man.

Anatomical features of the latest find show evidence linking the remains to those discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia. The Georgian hominins lived around 1.7 million years ago during the early dispersal of humans from Africa.

After settling in Western Europe, the early humans evolved into Homo antecessor, or "Pioneer Man", scientists said.

Dr Marina Mosquera, a co-author from the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, said the earliest evidence of hominins outside Africa are those from Dmanisi.

"What we have are the European descendents of the first migration out of Africa," said Dr Mosquera.

Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at London's Natural History Museum, said the findings are significant in proving that human expansion from Africa began in Europe.

"However the specimen is classified, when combined with the emerging archaeological evidence, it suggests that southern Europe began to be colonized from western Asia not long after humans had emerged from Africa - something which many of us would have doubted even five years ago."

"It gives us confidence that Europe was not left out of the picture of the spread of early humans. Early humans got to Java and China by 1.5 million years ago and certainly some of the animal remains found at those Asian sites are found in Western Europe too."


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