Breakthrough: Excavators Find the Oldest European Face Ever Discovered
The discovery of a 1.4-million-year-old human ancestor in Spain was in itself a history changing moment. But to discover it looked like us, “forces us to rewrite the books on human evolution,” claims a team of Spanish archaeologists. It is being heralded as the earliest European face found.
The location was hidden deep in the Atapuerca Mountain range near the village of Atapuerca, in the province of Burgos in northern Spain. Archaeologists excavating in the Sima del Elefante caves uncovered the fossilized face of an ancient hominid. Now, it has been determined that this ancient human lived between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago and that it represents “the oldest human” ever discovered in Europe, reports the Atapuerca Foundation .
Gazing Into A 1.4-Million-Year-Old Mirror
Until recently anthropologists generally maintained that Cro-Magnon were the first anatomically modern humans who migrated to Europe around 50,000 years ago. But the discovery of this human skull, and others, dating to between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago, has released a gang of proverbial cats right amongst the archaeological pigeons.
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Partial face of a hominid found at the Sima del Elefante site (Sierra de Atapuerca). ©Susana Santamaria / Atapuerca Foundation
The fossil was originally discovered on June 30 at the Sima del Elefante archaeological site by Édgar Téllez, a doctoral student. Rosa Huguet is a site coordinator and she told El Pais that the day after the jaw was discovered she declared they were “unequivocally human.” Furthermore, the fossil that dates back 1.4 million years has a particular feature on the chin that suggests these first Europeans had faces similar to our own. In contrast, at this time in Africa , Homo ergaster or Homo habilis had distinctly ape-like faces.
- Atapuerca Hominids Grew Much Quicker Than Modern Humans
- Hominids May Have Entered Europe Via the Strait of Gibraltar 900,000 Years Ago
Who Were We?
The feature discovered on the 1.4-million-year-old jaw was a slight vertical projection, which we all share today. This detail was also found on another ancient mandible excavated in 2007 that dated to 1.2 million years ago. But because the older 1.4-million-year-old jaw was buried more than a meter below the later example, scientists can conclude that the modern human face shape was “already present at this time (1.4-million-years-ago)”.
Last Friday the excavation directors presented the jaw bone to the town of Burgos, at which time and co-director Eudald Carbonell , announced that the remarkable discovery “will probably help us to know the species that socialized Europe."
This singular discovery has effectively opened up a new history book with blank pages that will soon be filled with answers to big questions such as ‘who were the earliest European humans’ and ‘how are they related to later descendant groups?’
Pushing Back Our Already Very Ancient Origins
Professor Carbonell added that the presence of the vertical chin on the 1.4-million-year-old jaw suggests there “may have been earlier hominins.” However, the owner of the jawbone represents one of the very first early members of “larger, more permanent populations”. In conclusion, these remains “push back the human presence in Europe.” Furthermore, they suggest the emergence of the modern face is much more ancient than previously believed.
Co-director Bermúdez de Castro says the formal scientific analysis and accurate dating of the bone will take about a year to complete. Excavations will continue, however, the fragment of a tooth was found next to the jaw suggesting more human remains await discovery. So, the question rising from all this is where on Earth did the relatives of this 1.4-million-year person come from?
The so-called Burgos species was the common ancestor of our modern human species and of the Neanderthals that evolved in Europe around 400,000 years ago. This is a distinct Homo species that was called antecessor. Therefore, the site researchers are inclined to think the jaw belonged to a this species of Homo, and that it descended from Homo erectus, one of the “first hominids that left Africa 1.8 million years ago,” according to the scientists.
But nothing is certain yet. For now, all we can be sure of is that these first nomadic humans peered into still ponds, rivers and rock pools, looking at faces similar to yours.
Top image: Part of the earliest European face, a 1.4-million-year-old jawbone recently excavated from Sima de Elefante cave, Spain. Source: Atapuerca Foundation
By Ashley Cowie