Fossil find is oldest European yet

The petite jaw suggests the oldest-found European was probably female. Spanish palaeontologists have dug up the remains of a 1.2-million-year-old humanlike inhabitant of Western Europe. The fossil find shows that members of our genus, Homo, colonized this region far earlier than many experts had thought. The primitive hominid — represented by just a fragment of jawbone bearing a handful of wobbly-looking teeth — lived in what is now the Sierra de Atapuerca region of northern Spain, an area already known as a treasure trove of early human remains. The new fossil, uncovered by an experienced team of palaeoanthropologists led by Eudald Carbonell of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, is by far the oldest human bone ever found in the region. The previous oldest fossils have been perhaps 800,000 years old, leading some anthropologists to believe that primitive humans did not reach Western Europe until around half a million years ago.

The Sierra de Atapuerca region of northern Spain is a treasure trove of early human remains. Now it seems that the earliest inhabitants of modern-day Spain lived there much longer ago. And like many of today’s Spaniards, it seems they were enthusiastic meat-eaters — Carbonell and his team also uncovered primitive stone tools and animal bones bearing signs of butchery. They report the find in Nature. The new discovery gives weight to the theory that Homo reached Europe not long after leaving Africa almost 2 million years ago. The oldest known hominid fossils outside Africa are aged at around 1.7 million years, and come from Dmanisi, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Dmanisi fossils belong to Homo erectus, the prodigious species that experts believe set off eastwards from Africa and went on to colonize much of Asia. The new fossil adds credence to the idea that, after reaching Asia, some of these travellers doubled back and headed west into Europe, suggests Carbonell’s colleague, José Bermúdez de Castro of the National Centre for Human Evolution Research in Burgos.

April 1, 2008

Original web page at Nature