Long before we set foot on the continent – and beating Neanderthals to it by hundreds of thousands of years – other species of ancient humans once stalked the forests of Europe. Now researchers have been able to concretely date the oldest human fossils ever found in Western Europe, and concluded that they are an impressive 1 million years old.
The fossils were discovered in a cave system in northern Spain, and had previously been attributed to the earliest known hominin species found in Europe, Homo antecessor. Using sediments, along with the bones of animals found alongside the human fossils, researchers were able to make an estimate of how old they thought they were, but a new study published in Quaternary Geochronology has given conclusive dates.
Using one of the teeth of the human fossils, a team of scientists from Spain, France, China, and Australia has dated the remains to between 772,000 and 949,000 years old, making them the oldest human remains ever found in Western Europe. A few hominin fossils that are believed to be older have been found at other sites, but none of them can be attributed to a specific species.
It is thought that Homo antecessor was the first human species to make it into Europe. Other ancient hominins had already migrated out of Africa – such as Homo erectus – but it is believed that they went east, eventually making it to China and Southeast Asia, where they were incredibly successful.
But H. antecessor is thought to have gone in the other direction. Now it is confirmed that by a million years ago they were in Spain. This is fascinating, as it fits in perfectly with what is believed to be the oldest set of human footprints found outside of Africa. Uncovered by a strong tide on the coast of Norfolk, England in 2013, the footprints were preserved in the soft sand and dated to an astonishing 800,000 years old. Within a matter of weeks they were destroyed by the returning tide.
As one population of H. antecessor moved into Europe and another remained in Africa, it is potentially the last common ancestor between our own species and Neanderthals. This is difficult to be certain of, however, as some argue that it could be an early form of Homo heidelbergensis, while others still think that the species may instead represent a species entirely within the Neanderthals own lineage.
The only way that these questions are likely to be resolved is if we discover more skeletons, and potentially extract ancient DNA from fossils.