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the Ancient World => Neolithic Europe => Topic started by: Deborah Valkenburg on May 04, 2008, 02:42:00 pm

Title: Was she the first European?
Post by: Deborah Valkenburg on May 04, 2008, 02:42:00 pm
Was she the first European?
Researchers say this jawbone, found in Spain, is the oldest known fossil of a human ancestor in Europe.
Jawbone predates earlier finds by 500,000 years. The puzzle is, how did it get there?

Apr 06, 2008 04:30 AM
Lynda Hurst
Feature Writer

A lower jawbone with a haggle of teeth.

That's all there was.

But its discovery in a limestone cave in northern Spain could be the holy grail long sought by anthropologists.

The fossil is by far the oldest skeletal evidence of a human presence in Europe. Dated at 1.3 million years, the find is not only exceptional in itself, but for the light it will shed on a question that's long been controversial: When did the earliest humans reach Europe?

Though our ancestors began their trek out of Africa and into the world some 2 million years ago, until recently there was no solid evidence that they were anywhere near western Europe before 500,000 years ago.

But human remains found 10 years ago in the same Spanish region, and by the same team that found the jawbone, suggested the date was further back, to about 800,000 years ago. It prompted them to name them as a new and distinct species, Homo antecessor, or "Pioneer Man" a move criticized by many at the time as premature.

Whatever its classification, the new discovery pushes the date for human occupation of Europe back further still. Noted Spanish anthropologist Eudald Carbonell,whose team unearthed the jaw last June, has no doubt of its significance.

"This find is incredible," he said after details of the discovery were published last month in the science journal Nature. "It's forceful evidence for a continual occupation in Europe from at least 1.3 million years ago."

Perhaps even before that. Primitive stone tools dating 300,000 years older still have been uncovered in Spain, as well as Italy and France, though as yet no human remains.

The Spanish team has provisionally assigned the new find to the Pioneer Man species, which they think is the last common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans, Homo sapiens us.

What is not known, however, is whether the species migrated to western Europe from Asia or directly from Africa. The discovery raises the intriguing and heretofore dismissed possibility that a wave of early humans found their way through northern Africa into Europe.

"The find is exciting, a pretty big deal on a number of levels," says Michael Chazan, an archeologist in University of Toronto's anthropology department. It means that man's earliest forerunners spread out of Africa more rapidly than was thought.

"But how did they get to western Europe?" he wonders. "Did they cross the water from North Africa? I think that's unlikely. But perhaps there were low sea levels."

People will now be asking those questions, says Chazan. "This find opens up a whole new field."

The mountainous Atapuerca region in northwestern Spain is a world heritage site and anthropological treasure trove. Systematically worked on since 1977, it is the most accurately dated location of its kind, a fossil-hunter's paradise. The small, 6-centimetre jawbone was found there in a complex of ancient caves known as Sima del Elefante.

Also buried in the sediment were crude stone tools and rock flakes. Numerous animal bones bearing butchery marks show the cave dwellers were enthusiastic carnivores with a diet that included rats, foxes, ferrets, bison, bears and big cats. In one instance, a cow's jaw had been hacked at to retrieve the tender marrow inside.

Because of its size, the human jaw is thought to belong to a female aged between 30 and 40 years old. The cave dwellers were likely about 1.7 metres tall (5-foot-7), say the researchers, with relatively small brains, three-quarters the size of modern humans.

The lush, warm Atapuerca valley would have been a safe place to live, according to the research team's co-director, paleoanthropologist Jose Bermudez de Castro. "There was a river nearby, and it was high up, so it was a good vantage point for hunters. The cave shelters there provided them with refuge."

Three different tests, rather than the usual two, were used to establish the age of the fossil: radioactive decay, a new form of radiometric dating, and paleomagnetism, a technique in which changes in Earth's magnetic field leave a weak signal in the soil, providing a timetable of the past.

"Before this method," says U of T's Chazan, who has used it in his own field work in South Africa, "we were just guessing in this time period. Now we can date with relative precision."

If the Spanish discovery confirms that western Europe began to be colonized not long after our earliest predecessors walked out of Africa and into the world, who were the first settlers and where did they originate? The find could begin to answer those questions as well.

The current consensus theory holds that roughly 2 million years ago, Homo erectus headed up through the Middle East, wandered east through southern Asia and reached Java and China 1.5 million years ago. Some argue there was a second wave of migration that reached western Asia before one branch essentially doubled back, veering further west to Europe, while the other continued east.

The oldest human remains found outside Africa are a pair of Homo erectus skulls, discovered in 1983 at Dmanisi in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia, dating back about 1.7 million years. The jawbone shares some anatomical attributes with them but also has more "modern" aspects; it is lightly built on the inside, an advanced feature found in later humans.

The Spanish team thinks it could belong to Dmanisi's evolutionary descendant. If so, it would fill in a major gap in our knowledge of human lineage.

But the link is still tentative. The 500,000 years between the two sets of fossils is a problem, paleoanthropologist Tim White at the University of California, Berkeley, told Nature: "There's a lot of time and distance between the Dmanisi collection and this one mandible in western Europe."

U of T's Chazan suspects the Spanish-site people were likely a variant of Homo erectus, not a new species. But given the recent find and the ongoing excavations at Atapuerca which he hopes one day to join that view could change at any time. As it is, he laughs, he already has to tell his students, "I was wrong last September when I said humans entered Europe 800,000 years ago."

The Spanish researchers say they fully expect to uncover more ancient remains, even up to 1.8 million years old, in other parts of Europe. "This has to be the next discovery," said Eudald Carbonell.

Chazan agrees. "There are older finds waiting to made, absolutely. There is so much left to find out."

Title: Re: Was she the first European?
Post by: Deborah Valkenburg on May 04, 2008, 02:42:52 pm

Researchers say this jawbone, found in Spain, is the oldest known fossil of a human ancestor in Europe.