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Clue unearthed Fossil shatters previous theories about human migration to Europe

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Kara Sundstrom
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« on: May 12, 2008, 09:51:19 pm »

Clue unearthed Fossil shatters previous theories about human migration to Europe, U-M researcher says
Monday, May 12, 2008The Ann Arbor News
Hidden underneath layers of sediment in a cave in northern Spain was an unassuming but breakthrough scientific find: the jawbone of the oldest-known human ancestor in Europe.

The fossil, dated at approximately 1.2 million years old, shatters scientists' previous theories about human migration to Europe, said University of Michigan researcher Josep Pares, who was a member of the team that found the jawbone last summer.

"We totally confirmed that human occupation in Europe was much earlier than previously thought. ... I think that the present theories need to be reconsidered, honestly,'' said Pares, who left May 2 to return to the Spanish work site for three months.

The fossil is from an ancestor to modern humans called Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man,'' which begot Homo sapiens and the Neanderthal species.

Conventional wisdom says that Europe remained untouched by human populations until around 500,000 years ago. But the jawbone proves that theory extinct, Pares said.

It instead suggests that as human migration moved north out of Africa, it formed two "pulses'' - one that moved east into Asia and another that moved west into Europe. Fossils approximately 1.7 million years old found in the country Georgia also support that theory, Pares said.

An expert in paleomagnetism and rock magnetism, Pares was closely involved in dating the fossilized jawbone from Spain. One clue to the fossil's age was the fact that it was found in under eight layers of sediment, he said.

The team, which is mostly composed of Spanish researchers, used three different methods to date the fossil: biostratigraphy, which examines the teeth of small, fossilized mammals near the fossil in question; paleomagnetism, which uses historic data of the earth's changing magnetism; and cosmogenic burial dating, which is based on the radioactive decay of the sediment surrounding a fossil.

The jawbone's approximate age astounded the scientists. "That was really an earth-shattering discovery,'' said Pares, the only current U-M researcher involved in the dig.

The cave system where the fossil was found, called Atapuerca and located north of Madrid, is teeming with past and potential archaeological finds, Pares said.

And since the cave system is a few kilometers long, and the site where the jawbone was found still has several unexcavated layers of sediment, Pares said there's no telling how many more treasures there are to find.

"We're looking at the tip of the iceberg here,'' he said. "There's so much more to come.''

Although Pares will move to Spain later this year to become the program director of the newly created National Research Center on Human Evolution, or the CENIEH, he says he will continue to return and work on the Atapuerca site.

"Today, it's the most important (archaeological) site in the world,'' he said. "The information we can gather from the bones ... makes it the most important site right now.''

Reporter Amanda Hamon can be reached at 734-994-6852 or
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