The oldest human remains in western Europe have been discovered in the Sierra de Atapuerca, a region of gently rolling hills near Burgos which contains a complex of ancient limestone caves. These caves have yielded abundant, well-preserved evidence of ancient occupation by humans and have been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. The new remains were unearthed at the archaeological site of Sima del Elefante, which lies just a few hundred metres from two other locations where remains of early Europeans have been found. The latest discovery comprises part of a human’s lower jawbone, dating back between 1.1 and 1.2 million years. The remains of seven teeth were found still in place; an isolated tooth, belonging to the same individual, was also unearthed. Its small size suggests it could have belonged to a female. Stone tools and animal bones with tell-tale cut marks from butchering by humans were also found. Writing in the journal Nature, Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, director of the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos who led the research team, said the latest find had anatomical features linking it to earlier hominins (modern humans, their ancestors and relatives since divergence from apes) discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia – at the gates of Europe. The Georgian hominins lived some 1.7 million years ago and represent an early expansion of humans outside Africa. The researchers therefore suggest that Western Europe was settled by a population of hominins coming from the east. They said once these early people had “won the West” they evolved into a distinct species they called “Homo antecessor”, or “Pioneer Man”. They now plan to investigate whether Pioneer Man might have been ancestral to Neanderthals and to even our own species Homo sapiens . The timing of the earliest human habitation in Europe has been controversial. Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at London’s Natural History Museum, said that until more material was discovered from Atapuerca, he was cautious about assigning the new specimen to the species Homo antecessor . But he added: “However the specimen is classified, when combined with the emerging archaeological evidence, it suggests that southern Europe began to be colonised from western Asia not long after humans had emerged from Africa – something which many of us would have doubted even five years ago.” He said the outside of the jawbone had some primitive anatomical features, but the inside displayed some more advanced characteristics, which suggested they may have been evolving towards humans which are known from much later in time, such as Homo heidelbergensis .


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