New skull discovery shows mankind may have arrived in Europe 150,000 years earlier than previously thought

Our Foreign Staff
Part of a skull named Apidima 2, discovered in a Greek cave, which was determined in a study to have the characteristics of Neanderthal man - AFP

Mankind may have arrived in Europe 150,000 years earlier than previously thought, researchers say, after reassessing an ancient skull found inside a cave in Greece.

The skull was found the cave in the 1970s, and initially identified as Neanderthal. But new techniques have allowed for further analysis of the skull, and scientists found to their astonishment that it is in fact a 210,000-year-old skull belonging to a Homo sapiens.

"It shows that the early dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa not only occurred earlier - before 200,000 years ago - but also reached further geographically, all the way to Europe," said Katerina Harvati, a palaeoanthropologist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen, in Germany.

"This is something that we did not suspect before, and which has implications for the population movements of these ancient groups."

The findings support the idea that Homo sapiens made several, sometimes unsuccessful, migrations from Africa over tens of thousands of years.

Homo sapiens have been in Europe longer than previously thought Credit: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Southeast Europe has long been considered a major transport corridor for modern humans from Africa. But until now the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens on the continent dated back only around 50,000 years.

In the new findings, published in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers used state-of-the art computer modelling and uranium dating to re-examine the skull – one of two found fossilised and badly damaged in the Greek cave.

One of them, named Apidima 2 after the cave in which the pair were found, proved to be 170,000 years old and did indeed belong to a Neanderthal.

But, to the surprise of scientists, the second skull, named Apidima 1, pre-dated Apidima 2 by up to 40,000 years, and was determined to be that of a Homo sapiens.

That makes it by far the oldest modern human remains ever discovered on the continent, and older than any known Homo sapiens specimen outside of Africa.

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.

Hominins - a subset of great apes that includes Homo sapiens and Neanderthals - are believed to have emerged in Africa more than six million years ago.

Apidima 1, a Homo sapiens skull, was found in a Greek cave in the 1970s and initially believed to be a Neanderthal skull

They left the continent in several migration waves starting about two million years ago. The oldest known African fossil attributed to a member of the Homo family is a 2.8 million-year-old jawbone from Ethiopia.

Homo sapiens replaced Neanderthals across Europe for good around up to 45,000 years ago, in what was long considered a gradual takeover of the continent involving millennia of co-existence and even interbreeding.

But the skull discovery in Greece suggests that Homo sapiens undertook the migration from Africa to southern Europe on "more than one occasion", according to Eric Delson, a professor of anthropology at City University of New York.

"Rather than a single exit of hominins from Africa to populate Eurasia, there must have been several dispersals, some of which did not result in permanent occupations," said Mr Delson, who was not involved in the Nature study.

Ms Harvati said advances in dating and genetics technology could continue to shape our understanding of how our pre-historic ancestors spread throughout the world.

"I think recent advances in palaeoanthropology have shown that the field is still full of surprises," she said.