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):