Bone shards of a 1.4 million-year-old face found in Spain appear to be from the oldest fossil of a human ancestor ever discovered in Europe, bumping further back the previous record-holder by 200,000 years. At this age, the bone is certainly not our species, Homo Sapien, but likely belongs to an extinct and mysterious human ancestor.
A fragment of the upper jaw and cheekbone was discovered on June 30 during archaeological excavations at Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain, according to the Atapuerca Foundation. Their monumental discovery was revealed at a press conference held on Friday.
This site is well known to have once been home to prehistoric human ancestors. In 1994, scientists working at the site discovered the remains of a previously unknown hominin dubbed Homo antecessor (Latin for "pioneer man"), its name alluding to the fact this species was the earliest known example of a human species daring to venture to western Europe. Its full identity isn’t certain, but some researchers argue it may have been one of the last common ancestors between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals.
The team is currently unsure which human species the new jaw and cheekbone belonged to, but they are keen to see how they relate to Homo antecessor and whether the fossils could provide any insight into how certain facial features evolved among the many species of humans.
Another ground-breaking discovery at Atapuerca arrived in 2007 when they found hominin remains that dated to 1.2 million years ago. This latest discovery was found at an even deeper geological layer, suggesting that it dates to around 200,000 years prior.
To confirm this, the jawbone fragment will undergo radiocarbon dating at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution in Burgos. Those results hope to be released early next year within six to eight months, according to AFP.
All of these discoveries shed some much need light on one of the crucial chapters of archaic human history: the waves of migrations out of Africa. The new bones likely belonged to an individual that was a member of the first human population to settle in Europe.
However, it would be some time before they were joined by Homo Sapiens. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago. The ancestors of current human populations outside Africa did not leave that continent until about 60,000 years ago. They likely entered Europe around 45,000 years ago and quickly replaced the long-standing population of Neanderthals, which were driven into extinction around 40,000 years ago.