Oldest human skull outside Africa identified as 210000 years old

Homo sapiens have been in Europe longer than previously thought

Fossilised skulls discovered in the Apidima Caves in Greece suggest modern humans may have arrived in Eurasia more than 150,000 years earlier than first thought. It was found along with another complete skull, Apidima 2, which was identified as belonging to a Neanderthal.

And it adds more weight to the theory that modern humans migrated out of Africa multiple times, before Homo sapiens became the last human species standing. Southeast Europe is considered to be a major migration corridor out of Africa.

"Our results suggest that at least two groups of people lived in the Middle Pleistocene in what is now southern Greece: an early Homo sapiens population, followed by a Neanderthal population", said Professor Katerina Harvati, a researcher at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

Both skulls were found in a block of breccia, or broken fragments of rock and fossil cemented together, wedged high between the walls of the Apidima Cave in southern Greece.

Moving forward, researchers will continue studying Apidima material, excavated in the 1970s and '80s by the Museum of Anthropology of the Medical School of the University of Athens. Of their knowledge after he is 170.000 years old. The skulls were not removed from the breccia and remained at the museum. Researchers were somewhat befuddled by the remains; they were incomplete and distorted, for one, and had been found without any archaeological context, like stone tools. At the time, researchers focused on the latter.

The latter showed Neanderthal-like features such as a thick, rounded brow ridge whereas the former displayed modern ones.

The research team virtually reconstructed damaged parts of the skulls, conducted comparisons with different human fossils and used radiometric dating method to determine their age. Then they compared the virtual skulls with a variety of other skulls of known species. Arsuaga examined Apidima 1 in 2017 and concluded the skull was Neanderthal. Melanie Lee Chang, an evolutionary biologist at Portland State University, tells Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post that Apidima 1 is an "outlier", and that she is "not willing to sign on to all of [the researchers'] conclusions here".

Scientists do not know yet why the populations resulting from the early out-of-Africa dispersals, such as those to Israel or Greece, did not survive.

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Apidima 1 lacked classic features associated with Neanderthal skulls, including the distinctive bulge at the back of the head, shaped like hair tied in a bun.

Before this discovery, the oldest modern human fossils were an upper jaw and teeth found in an Israeli cave spreading from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula about 180,000 years ago.

Apidima 1 and its reconstruction.

The back of the skull known as the "posterior cranium" was rounded at the back - a characteristic unique to humans and not found in neanderthals.

They also digitally recreated what the whole of the Apidima 1 skull would have looked like and realized it was more likely a modern human (Homo sapiens), dating it to 210,000 years ago. They found that one of them, dating from 170,000 years ago is indeed Neanderthal.

The cave is reachable only by water now.

There has however been a number of discoveries indicating the ancient presence of Neanderthals - an early human cousin - across the continent. The cave overlooked a coastal plain that was probably flawless for hunting, while the cave itself provided shelter.

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