Earliest modern human found outside Africa

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The Apidima 2 cranium (right) and its reconstruction (left).

Only with the advent of new technology has it become possible to study the find in detail, according to Katerina Harvati of the University of Tuebingen in Germany, who was invited to do so.

Professor Harvati said: 'Here we virtually reconstruct both crania, provide detailed comparative descriptions and analyses, and date them.

Based on the skull shapes alone, it is clear there are significant differences: Apidima 2 is more complete and shows similarities to Neanderthals, while Apidima 1 is reminiscent of modern human fossils. The rounded back is just like a modern human's; Neanderthals have a bulge at the back of the skull that nearly resembles a hair bun.

Tellingly, the Apidima 1 fossil lacks a "chignon", the distinctive bulge at the back of the skull that is characteristic of Neanderthals. The researchers say that since one skull is older than the other, each must have originally been deposited in different sediment layers before ending up about 30 centimeters apart on the cave wall. And when the team dated the fossils by analyzing the radioactive decay of trace uranium in the specimens, they got another shock.

But Apidima 1 was dated to 210,000 years ago, making it by far the oldest Homo sapiens fossil found on the continent.

"Until our reconstruction, Apidima 1 was regarded as a Neanderthal as well", Professor Grun said.

This discovery may add a wrinkle to the commonly accepted timeline of modern humans' dispersal from Africa and arrival in Europe.

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The oldest-known fossil of a modern human from Africa, the cradle of mankind, dates back some 300,000 years. And the presence of Neanderthal DNA in our own genomes shows they also bred with our species.

Homo sapiens are thought to have arrived on the scene around 45,000 years ago, interbreeding with Neanderthals and eventually emerging as the dominant species.

'These analyses indicate modern humans dispersed out of Africa much earlier than previously thought - and support the hypothesis that there were multiple dispersals.

Last year USA scientists reported the discovery of a jawbone in Israel that was the oldest known human remains found outside of Africa. Bone remains recovered from a small breccia sample fell into the same distinct isotopic groups as the skulls. The 3D models were then compared with skulls from various ancient Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and modern humans.

The earliest known fossilized remains of modern humans have all been found on the African continent, but this is the earliest evidence of modern humans outside Africa.

Researchers concluded that the cranial fragment, labelled Apidima 1, came from a Homo sapien. "I can not see anything suggesting that the individual belongs to the sapiens lineage", Juan Luis Arsuaga, a University of Madrid paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, told Maya Wei-Haas at National Geographic. Experts contacted by the Guardian doubted whether the skull really belonged to a modern human, and had concerns about the dating procedure.

"I can not see anything suggesting that [Apidima 1] belongs to the sapiens lineage", he says. They want to know the underlying cause for the early migrations, if there were technological advancements that allowed for those migrations and why some of the modern human populations didn't persist in the areas where they migrated.

"We're seeing evidence for human dispersals that are not just limited to one major exodus out of Africa".

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