New Information on the Petralona Skull Controversy

New Information on the Petralona Skull Controversy

Ancient Origins has recently presented the debate about the skull found in Petralona, Greece. This debate has been continuing in the scientific community for more than half a century. While the Greek government has tried to supress information regarding the skull and disallow Dr Aris Poulianos and his collaborators from carrying out further research, many scientists have spoken out in support. Read the background to the discovery of a human skull in Petralona, that has since been referred to as ‘Petralona Man’.

In a recent letter to the Ministry of Culture in Greece, dated 13th August 2013, Dr. Kyung Sik Woo, the South Korean President of the International Union of Speleology, a UNESCO-recognized organization that represents cave scientists and cavers in over 60 countries, wrote:

Petralona Cave, in Chalkidiki, Greece, is an internationally significant archaeological and paleontological site. Over the years there have been disputes about the age of the hominin skeletons recovered from the cave. More recently I've heard concerns about the condition and security of those materials, and that research scientists, notably the primary scientists who studied the material and the cave, Drs Aris and Nikolas Poulianos, are being refused access to the materials and cave for further research. I am writing on behalf of the Union Internationale de Speleology (UIS) to state and request the following be done openly and transparently:  Demonstrate that the materials are safe from harm and establish a policy to assure their continued long-term security; use documents and other information to prove the authenticity and provenance of the materials;  carefully and accurately document the physical condition of the materials and any damage to establish a baseline from which their future condition and the effects of any handling should be secured and future study can be precisely compared and measured; and develop a policy that includes the procedures, conditions, and limitations under which any qualified scientist can access the materials for further study.

Professor Macie Henneberg, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, University of Cape Town, has also reiterated the importance of the discovery:

There is no doubt that all aspects of the origins of humans and of their present-day life are of interest to all mankind and that no effort should be spared in investigating them… The cave of Petralona and related sites stand out as one of the foremost documents of man's origins.

Some disputes are still going on, but it is becoming ever clearer that the exact age of the Petralona skull is very important concerning the investigation of human evolution for many reasons.

It is a totally different consideration whether the diversification of our subspecies (anthropological types, phylae, or the commonly called races) took place thousands of years ago or almost one million years ago. Until determining the age of the Petralona skull at ~700,000 years, all human fossils before around 400,000 years were considered as belonging to one species of Homo erectus, for example, ‘Beijing man’ (500,000 years), Java man (900,000 years), or other African exemplars (around 1.1 million years).

Recapitulating the facts and the surrounding framework concerning the Petralona skull, initially it was considered by P. Kokkoros and A. Kanellis, Professors of Thessaloniki University, that it represented an unstratified female Neanderthal of ~50,000-70,000 years ago. The same age was given in 1964 by two German researchers, O. Sickenberg in Paleontology and E. Breitinger in Anthropology, the latter declaring that Petralona man is “the first African out of Africa”.

When Dr Aris Poulianos had the opportunity to study the skull, he immediately highlighted the European traits of the male Petralona man.  In 1968, and again from 1975 to 1983, he excavated the Petralona cave, proving that the human skull belonged to a well evident stratigraphic sequence (corresponding to the 11th layer), of 700,000 years old, presenting its own Paleolithic culture, not to mention the oldest traces of fire ever kindled by a human being. The above mentioned professor, O. Sickenberg, with the help of his pupil G. Shutt, indirectly agreed with Dr Aris Poulianos concerning the date of 700,000 years before passing away by the end of 1970.

The initial international reaction was that no humans could exist at that age out of Africa in Europe. Therefore, Dr Aris Poulianos’ theory was seen as exaggerated. However, during the next decades due also to Petralona excavating data, other European Palaeo-anthropological sites were proven to be of an analogous age (700,000 years), such as Mauer (Germany), Isernia (Italy) or Boxgrove (England). The scientific “wind” started slowly to “blow” in favour of Poulianos.  Discoveries such as in Atapuerca (Spain), Ceprano (Italy) or Dmanissi (Caucasus) reconfirmed the initial idea that in Europe the existence of humans could be of 2 million years ago, if not even more. However, in Greece, it seems that this news never arrived and that things became worse. That is why Professor Macie Henneberg wrote in a letter to “Current Anthropology” (v. 29, 1988):

By the entrance to the (Petralona Anthropological) museum there is a marble plaque describing the purpose of the museum and stating that it was erected through Dr. Poulianos efforts. His name has been crudely chiselled off (though parts of it are still legible). There is no competent anthropologist supervising the site and the museum at the moment… I do think that it is unethical to erase facts with a chisel and to prevent competent researchers from continuing their work at the site.

It is important herewith to point out that after Dmanissi, a new “exodus like theory” emerged. First, Homo habilis escaped (via deserts of Sinai) from Africa to Eurasia, where finally it became extinct. On the contrary, in Africa, Homo habilis evolved into Homo erectus, who in its turn spread to the rest of the world, but finally disappeared there too. In Africa, however it evolved into Homo heidelbergensis (an archaic form of Homo sapiens), defused all over the world, but where it also disappeared. In Africa, Homo heidelbergensis evolved into Homo sapiens where it supposedly spread out of Africa 200,000 years ago.

Returning back to the Petralona skull dating, two main questions arise: A. If any ancestral human forms at the age of more than 700,000 years ago existed, preceding today’s living populations (African, Asian, European), could the manifestation of their diversification be much older than it was initially thought (and not only 10,000, 30,000 or 200,000 years ago)? Since it would be very improbable for similar subspecific anthropological types to be repeated after almost a million years towards the same direction, the hypothesis of the early diversification (due to different adaptations) gains ground. B. Does it mean that all humans have belonged to the same species for the last 700,000 years or more?    

The answer to the above questions pass through the exact chronology of the Petralona skull (where most of the Anthropological Association of Greece’s efforts were directed), as well as establishing the degree of the Paleolithic culture.

On the other hand, a huge damage of the skull itself was advanced by some scholars, a fact denounced by R. Murill (USA), C. Stringer (England), R. Protsch (Germany), my father, Dr Aris Poulianos, me and others. In my opinion, this damage happened to erroneously extract samples from the skull in order to contradict the dating of 700,000 years. This sampling not only greatly damaged the skull (animal fossils could be destroyed instead), but also gave a totally incorrect date to between 125,000 and 240,000 years ago. The Anthropological Association of Greece, feeling a heavy duty in front of the international scientific and public community, asked the Greek authorities to advance written descriptions accompanied by photos and videos verifying the skull’s state of preservation. This was to be reassured that at least from that moment on, nobody could sample without the consensus of the Greek state along with the aid of an international council. This is one of the reasons why Doctors N. Taylor (2012) and Kyung Sik Woo (2013) addressed their letters with analogous contexts to the Greek Ministry of culture.

In closing is an excerpt from Professor Macie Henneberg’s letter:

Knowledge is among the most precious resources of humanity. It should be freely pursued and shared internationally…The Congress appeals to the international community of scholars to make every possible effort to protect the invaluable evidence of human origins and to enable researchers with years of local experience to continue their work in the spirit of academic freedom and to the benefit of human knowledge.


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