According to researchers, humanity may have arrived in Europe 150,000 years earlier than planned after reevaluating an ancient skull found in a cave in Greece.
The skull was found in the cave in the 1970s and was identified as a Neanderthal. But new techniques have deepened the analysis of the skull and scientists were surprised to see that it was a skull of 210 000 years old and belonging to a Homo sapiens.
"This shows that the early dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa has not only occurred earlier – 200,000 years ago – but has expanded geographically until it reached the end of the 1980s. in Europe, "said Katerina Harvati, paleoanthropologist at the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen, Germany.
"It's something we had not suspected before and that has implications for the population movements of these old groups."
The results corroborate the idea that Homo sapiens would have made several migrations from Africa, sometimes unsuccessfully, over the course of tens of thousands of years.
South-East Europe has long been considered a major transport corridor for modern humans in Africa. But until now, the first traces of Homo sapiens on the continent only dated back to about 50,000 years ago.
In the new findings, published in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers used state-of-the-art computer modeling and uranium dating to re-examine the skull – one of two fossilized and severely damaged uncovered in the Greek cave.
One of them, named Apidima 2, after the cave in which they were found, stood at 170,000 years and actually belonged to a Neanderthal.
But, to the scientists' surprise, the second skull, named Apidima 1, was earlier than Apidima 2 nearly 40,000 years ago and was supposed to be that of a Homo sapiens.
This makes it by far the oldest of the modern human remains ever discovered on the continent, and older than any specimen of Homo sapiens known outside of Africa.
Apidima 1 lacked classic traits associated with Neanderthal skulls, including the distinctive bulge at the back of the head, shaped like a knot of hair.
The hominins – a subgroup of great apes including Homo sapiens and Neanderthal – would have emerged in Africa more than six million years ago.
They left the mainland with several waves of migration beginning about two million years ago. The oldest known African fossil attributed to a member of the Homo family is a jawbone of Ethiopia aged 2.8 million years old.
Homo sapiens has definitely replaced Neanderthals across Europe about 45,000 years ago, in what has long been regarded as a gradual takeover of the continent involving millennia of coexistence and even miscegenation. .
But the discovery of the skull in Greece suggests that Homo sapiens has embarked on migration from Africa to southern Europe to "more than one occasion," according to Eric Delson, a professor of science and technology. Anthropology at City University of New York.
"Rather than a single African homininos outing to populate Eurasia, there must have been several dispersions, some of which have not resulted in permanent occupations. "said Mr. Delson, who was not involved in the Nature study.
Harvati said that advances in dating and genetic technology may continue to influence our understanding of how our prehistoric ancestors have spread around the world.
"I think recent progress in paleoanthropology has shown that the field is still full of surprises," she said.