A skull found in the Apidima cave of the Peloponnese in Greece indicates that our human ancestors left Africa far earlier than anthropologists believed.
A study was published in the Journal Nature, on Wednesday, that the skull, which was originally found in the 1970’s in Greece, belonged to a member of an early population of Homo sapiens that is around 210,000 years old.
Even though the skulls were discovered in 1978, by the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, when conducting a research, the skulls were only now properly analyzed.
The other skull that was also found in the cave belonged to a Neanderhal that dates back to 170,000 years ago.
According to researchers, finding both skulls in the same cave suggests that numerous early migrations took place out of Africa, rather than a single event. This is the earliest evidence of modern humans found outside Africa.
The earliest known remains of modern humans have all been discovered in Africa, but this discovery predates what researchers formerly thought to be the earliest Homo sapiens evidence in Europe by more than 160,000 years.
When the skulls were initially found in the ’70s, they were named Apidima 1 and Apidima 2, taking the name of the cave they were found in. Apidima 2 was identified as a Neanderthal, but Apidima 1 wasn’t given a type.
Researcher Katerina Harvati and her colleagues, were invited to study the Apidima skulls, and according to Harvati, assigning an age for the specimens proved challenging.
Even though the skulls were found side by side in the cave, by using tools that measure age based on uranium decay, Apidima 1 was found to be around 40,000 years older than the 170,000 year old Apidima 2.
What surprised the researchers was that the skull of Apidima 1 had unique characteristics of an early member of the Homo sapiens family.
Even though 315,000 year old fossils were found at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, the findings displayed more primitive features than Apidima 1.
Anthropologists had concluded that modern Homo sapiens left Africa in a mass exodus around 70,000 years ago, slowly spreading out to Europe, the Pacific and Asia. These ancestors over time replaced the Neanderthals in those areas.
However, recent discoveries and Apidima 1, have led researchers to believe that some modern Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa long before that larger exodus. Those early migrants, however, don’t seem to have been successful.
Another study author, named Rauner Grun, said the two individuals came from very different environments before passing away.
“It’s a wonder of nature that you find the two together,” he said.
This part of Europe with its mild coastal climate was a favored substitute to other parts of Europe, Havarti believes, and might have served as a refuge for humans and animals of that period.
But these earliest Homo sapiens died out while local Neanderthal populations persisted, she said.
“All humans alive today outside Africa can trace their ancestry” to that final, successful dispersal, Harvati said, but early migrants like Apidima 1 didn’t contribute any genetic material to humans living today.
Many questions remain for the researchers. They want to find out the cause for the early migrations, why some of the modern Homo Sapiens didn’t persist in the areas they migrated, and if there were technological advancements that allowed for those migrations.