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Virtual reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium in frontal (A), posterior (B), superior (C), and endocranial (D) views. The frontal sinus in D is exposed in a parasagittal section located 4 mm to the right of the sagittal plane.

At Nearly Half a Million-Years-Old, the Fossil of a Human Cranium Discovered in Portugal is a Shock Find

Archaeologists unearthed a 400,000-year-old skull of a mysterious human ancestor with Neanderthal traits in Portugal. It is considered to be the oldest fossil of a human ancestor discovered in the country.

An Array of Stone Tools Accompany the Fossil

A large international research group, including decorated scientists such as Binghamton University anthropologist Rolf Quam and led by the Portuguese archaeologist João Zilhão, has discovered the oldest fossil human cranium in Portugal, contributing significant information on human evolution during the middle Pleistocene in Europe and the origin of the Neanderthals. The skull, of which the cranium is preserved, was fossilized in sedimentary rock between 390,000 and 436,000 years ago, dating to the mid-Pleistocene.

Various stages during the in-situ extraction and restoration process of the fossil, and reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium after cleaning.

Various stages during the in-situ extraction and restoration process of the fossil, and reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium after cleaning. ( Daura J. et al .)

It was discovered inside a cave surrounded by scattered fossilized animal remains, with some of them being partially burnt, and an impressive display of stone tools including handaxes. Experts now claim most of these tools are some of the earliest evidence of stone tool use of its kind in all of Europe. The disposition among the charred remains indicates that the human ancestors would purposely use fire to cook meat, as well as stone tools to kill and prepare it.

Acheulean handaxes (bifaces) found at the site. (A) Flint. (B–E) Quartzite.

Acheulean handaxes (bifaces) found at the site. ( A) Flint. ( BE) Quartzite. ( Daura J. et al .)

The Fossilized Skull has Several Neanderthal Traits

The skull has more than two Neanderthal traits, and archaeologists see it as an important source of information to better understand the early history of the evolution and divergence of Neanderthals. Rolf Quam said in a statement as the official webpage of Binghamton University reports ,

“This is an interesting new fossil discovery from the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for understanding the origin and evolution of the Neandertals. The Aroeira cranium is the oldest human fossil ever found in Portugal and shares some features with other fossils from this same time period in Spain, France and Italy. The Aroeria cranium increases the anatomical diversity in the human fossil record from this time period, suggesting different populations showed somewhat different combinations of features."

The Aroeira 3 cranium compared with Atapuerca SH Cranium 5 and the Steinheim specimen.

The Aroeira 3 cranium compared with Atapuerca SH Cranium 5 and the Steinheim specimen. ( Daura J. et al .)

The Team Who Worked with the Fossil

The cranium was discovered in 2014, during the last day of the field season. It was then transferred from the site to the restoration laboratory at the Centro de Investigacion sobre la Evolucion y Comportamiento Humanos, a paleoanthropology research center in Madrid, Spain, in a vast block of stone, which took two more years to excavate with great care and thoroughness. João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in the UK, who is also a study author, told International Business Times : "I have been studying these sites for the last 30 years and we have recovered much important archaeological data, but the discovery of a human cranium of this antiquity and importance is always a very special moment."

 And Quam added ,

“The results of this study are only possible thanks to the arduous work of numerous individuals over the last several years. This includes the archaeologists who have excavated at the site for many years, the preparator who removed the fossil from its surrounding breccia, researchers who CT scanned the specimen and made virtual reconstructions and the anthropologists who studied the fossil. This study truly represents an international scientific collaboration, and I feel fortunate to be involved in this research."

Virtual reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium in frontal (A), posterior (B), superior (C), and endocranial (D) views. The frontal sinus in D is exposed in a parasagittal section located 4 mm to the right of the sagittal plane.

Virtual reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium in frontal ( A), posterior ( B), superior ( C), and endocranial ( D) views. The frontal sinus in D is exposed in a parasagittal section located 4 mm to the right of the sagittal plane. ( Daura J. et al .)

The new fossil will be the main theme of an exhibition on human evolution in October at the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon, Portugal.

Top Image: The cranium found in the Aroeira cave, which dates from the mid-Pleistocene about 400,000 years ago. Source: Daura J. et al .

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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