Humans may have reached Europe by 210,000 years ago

Humans may have reached Europe by 210,000 years ago

Enlarge / A view of the Apidima 1 skull from behind (left), above (center), and below (right). The scale bar represents 5 cm. (credit: Harvati et al. 2019)

A few fossilized bones from the back of a skull may prove that our species spread into Eurasia much earlier than previously suspected. A new study of the partial skull, which was excavated from Apidima Cave in southern Greece 40 years ago, suggests that the fossil is Homo sapiens and that it’s roughly 210,000 years old. That makes it the oldest member of our species ever found outside of Africa.

The fossil, known as Apidima 1, is likely the remains of a member of an early wave of humans who spread into Eurasia. Based on genetic studies and the fossil record, anthropologists think these early pioneers failed to gain a successful foothold and ended up being replaced by Neanderthals (for a while,

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Neanderthals’ history is as complicated as ours

Neanderthals’ history is as complicated as ours

Enlarge / The upper and lower jawbones of a juvenile Neanderthal girl who lived in Belgium around 127,000 years ago. (credit: Peyrégne et al. 2019)

DNA preserved in ancient bones and teeth has recently helped scientists reconstruct how groups of ancient humans migrated and mingled, and a new study now does the same thing for Neanderthals. Neanderthals lived in Eurasia for around 400,000 years, and it would be a huge stretch to assume they spent all that time as one big homogeneous population or that different groups of Neanderthals never migrated and mixed.

Thanks to ancient DNA, we can now begin to see how Neanderthal groups moved around Eurasia long before Homo sapiens entered the mix.

Neanderthals on the move

Evolutionary geneticist Stéphane Peyrégne and his colleagues recently sequenced DNA from two Neanderthals, both just over 120,000 years old. One set of DNA comes from the upper jaw of a

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We probably don’t descend from Australopithecus sediba

We probably don’t descend from Australopithecus sediba

Enlarge / According to Du and Alemseged, A. sediba is probably not our direct ancestor. (credit: Brett Eloff courtesy Profberger and Wits University)

Sometime around 2 million years ago, a group of bipedal hominins in Eastern Africa gradually evolved into something that looked and acted enough like us to be part of our genus, Homo. This was an important moment in the evolutionary history of our species, but paleoanthropologists aren’t sure yet exactly which species actually gave rise to our branch of the hominin family tree. A new study, however, suggests that we can probably rule out one of the contenders.

Where did we come from?

The top contenders include a species called Australopithecus sediba, known from the fossilized remains of two adults and four children who apparently fell to their deaths in Malapa Cave around 1.9 million years ago. The other top contender is called A.

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Finally, a Denisovan specimen from somewhere beyond Denisova Cave

Finally, a Denisovan specimen from somewhere beyond Denisova Cave

Enlarge / The entrance of the cave is relatively flat with a gentle slope up to the inside, where two small trenches were plotted in 2018. (credit: Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University)

Denisovans, an extinct group of hominins that once walked alongside (and had sex with) Neanderthals and modern humans, are an enigmatic branch of our family tree. They left fragments of their DNA behind in modern human genomes across Asia, Australia, and Melanesia. But their only physical remains seem have been left in Denisova Cave in Siberia: just a finger, a few molars, a fragment of arm or leg bone, and a small chunk of skull.

But we’re starting to piece together a little more of our mysterious cousins’ story. A team of paleoanthropologists recently identified a new Denisovan fossil—half of an entire jaw. And it comes from the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau in northern China,

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