A skull fragment discovered in the Apidima cave on the Mani peninsula, southern Peloponnese, Greece, appears to be the oldest (so far) fossil of Homo sapiens ever discovered in Europe.
In 1978, anthropologists exploring the cave found two hominin skull fossils. For decades, they both sat on a shelf and their identity remained unknown.
Recently, an international team of experts led by Katerina Harvati, director of Paleoanthropology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, has re-examined the skulls using advanced dating techniques, CT reconstruction and morphological analysis.
The two fossils were named after the cave as Apidima 1 (the skull piece) and Apidima 2 (a more complete one that includes the face).
The Apidima 1 skull (considered as an early member of Homo sapiens by the researchers) was dated to be over 210,000 years BP, by measuring the radioactive decay of uranium naturally found in the bone and the concretions that covered it. The posterior part of the cranium is rounded like that of Homo sapiens, and it lacks classic Neanderthal features.
The second skull, Apidima 2, was found to belong to an early Neanderthal and was dated to around 170,000 years BP.
Until recently it was believed that all humans descend from a group of people who left East Africa before 70,000 years ago. We have found though that Homo sapiens has been around for much longer than that; at least 300,000 years. That made researchers suspect that there were earlier migratory waves out of Africa. A confirmation of this hypothesis was the discovery of a human jawbone in Misliya cave, Israel, dated around 200,000 years BP.
The Apidima 1 discovery suggests that this early ‘out of Africa’ movement was probably not a small or localized event, but, most likely, a significant migration into Eurasia.
“Misliya could be the source population for the Apidima people,” said Harvati, though she added that it is difficult to compare the two finds morphologically because different fragments of the skull were preserved in the two fossils.
Until now, the earliest remains of modern humans found on the European Continent were less than 45,000 years old.
“Our results indicate that an early dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa occurred earlier than previously believed, before 200,000 years ago”, Harvati said. “We’re seeing evidence for human dispersals that are not just limited to one major exodus out of Africa”.
Not all experts seem to agree on the classification and dating of the finds. For example, French paleoanthropologist Marie-Antoinette de Lumley, identified both the Apidima skulls as Neanderthal and dated them to 160,000 years ago.
(You may read the paper here: https://www.cnrseditions.fr/catalogue/prehistoire/les-restes-humains-anteneandertaliens-apidima-1-et-apidima-2/)
K. Harvati dismissed those conclusions, saying that her colleague had used “a relatively old-fashioned approach” that did not avail itself of the advanced scanning and dating methods used by her team.
You may also read an article on ‘Nature‘ about the discovery: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02075-9
Abstract Two fossilized human crania (Apidima 1 and Apidima 2) from Apidima Cave, southern Greece, were discovered in the late 1970s but have remained enigmatic owing to their incomplete nature, taphonomic distortion and lack of archaeological context and chronology. Here we virtually reconstruct both crania, provide detailed comparative descriptions and analyses, and date them using U-series radiometric methods. Apidima 2 dates to more than 170 thousand years ago and has a Neanderthal-like morphological pattern. By contrast, Apidima 1 dates to more than 210 thousand years ago and presents a mixture of modern human and primitive features. These results suggest that two late Middle Pleistocene human groups were present at this site—an early Homo sapiens population, followed by a Neanderthal population. Our findings support multiple dispersals of early modern humans out of Africa, and highlight the complex demographic processes that characterized Pleistocene human evolution and modern human presence in southeast Europe.
(Source: “Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia”, by Katerina Harvati, Carolin Röding, Abel M. Bosman, Fotios A. Karakostis, Rainer Grün, Chris Stringer, Panagiotis Karkanas, Nicholas C. Thompson, Vassilis Koutoulidis, Lia A. Moulopoulos, Vassilis G. Gorgoulis & Mirsini Kouloukoussa)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Maximus E. Niles