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A new study of human skulls found in the Apidima Caves in Greece reveals that early modern humans may have arrived in Eurasia earlier than first thought. The study, led by a team of researchers from the Universities of Tübingen and Athens and including the Natural History Museum’s Professor Chris Stringer, reveals that Homo sapiens may have reached Europe at least 210,000 years ago, more than 150,000 years earlier than previously known.
The specimens included two fossilised partial human crania from Apidima in southern Greece that were discovered by the Museum of Anthropology, University of Athens in the late 1970s. The Natural History Museum’s Professor Chris Stringer said: “When we first studied the two fossil human crania from Apidima Cave, our assumption was that they were found close together and could therefore both be dated by a Uranium Series determination on one of the skulls. But the more we studied Apidima 1, the less it looked like Apidima 2 and Neanderthal fossils – although only part of the back of the cranium was preserved, it looked like Homo sapiens fossils from the last 100,000 years. Now we know from further dating that this modern human fossil is actually older than the Neanderthal one from the same site”.
Lead researcher Professor Katerina Harvati from the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen added: "Our results suggest that at least two groups of people lived in the Middle Pleistocene in what is now southern Greece: an early population of Homo sapiens and, later, a group of Neanderthals.” This supports the hypothesis that early modern humans spread out of Africa, where they evolved, multiple times.
The new research conducted numerous comparisons with different human fossils, and used a highly accurate radiometric dating method to determine their age. The research team applied cutting edge technology, including virtual reconstructions of the damaged parts of the skulls to discover more about the origins of the fossils.
Professor Stringer continued: “If these latest analyses are correct, Homo sapiens entered Europe over 150,000 years earlier than we thought, raising a whole new range of questions and possibilities, including where they came from, and what happened to them.”
The researchers plan further studies of Apidima, long considered important for human evolution, but shown to be of even greater significance by these new results.
The paper was published in Nature on 10 July.
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About the Natural History Museum:
The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity.
The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome around five million visitors each year and our website receives over 850,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.