Early humans in Europe and Asia
Finding out when the first humans began living in Europe has been difficult in the past. Scientists have debated this for many years and there has been much controversy.
Early human fossils are known from Dmanisi in Georgia and are dated to about 1.75 million years ago. Until recently, the oldest European fossils, from the Gran Dolina site at Atapuerca in Spain, were only about half that age.
There are some sites in Spain, France and Italy that appear to have stone tools dated as far back as 1.5 million years, but these have no associated human fossils, and some workers have expressed doubts about the reliability of the dating.
New finds from Sima del Elefante in northern Spain include a human lower jawbone, found together with tools and animal bones, and the latter show signs of human activity such as hammering and butchery marks. Eudald Carbonell, of the Universitat Rovira I Virgili in Tarragona in Spain, and his team, dated the human fossil remains to about 1.2 million years old, making them the oldest in western Europe so far.
The Sima de Elefante mandible is small, perhaps from a female, and on its outside surface shows feature found in earlier fossils of Homo erectus and even Homo habilis. But on the internal surface, it is quite lightly built – an advanced feature found in later humans.
Out of Africa
Evidence suggests that modern humans evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, although the roots of the Homo sapiens lineage probably extend back to the evolutionary split with Neanderthals about 400,000 years ago. About 55,000 years ago modern humans emerged from Africa (although there had been previous brief excursions). As well as remaining in their evolutionary homeland, they spread throughout the world to become the human species we know today.
However, there were much earlier migrations from Africa of human relatives such as “Homo floresiensis” and Homo erectus, and these populations also continued to evolve and differentiate outside of Africa. Some of these lineages in Europe and Asia might have overlapped with dispersing modern humans after 55,000 years, with the possibility of contact and even, in some cases, hybridisation.
Eudald Carbonell and colleagues think that the Sima del Elefante jaw may have belonged to Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’ (originally named in 1997 from the somewhat younger Atapuerca Gran Dolina fossils). As the equivalent jaw area is not preserved in those specimens, some doubt must be attached to this classification.
Equally, until more material has been discovered (and hopefully more finds of this age will now follow from Atapuerca and elsewhere), we should be cautious about inferring that Homo antecessor originated in western Europe out of a founding population like that known from Dmanisi. In fact the most recent research by the Atapuerca team suggests that the closest links are actually with Homo erectus samples from China.
Although no human remains have yet been found at Happisburgh, the estimated age of the site, close to one million years, puts the human occupation within the time range of the only European fossil human material yet known from this period, from Sima del Elefante and Gran Dolina. Thus Homo antecessor may have been the manufacturer of the Happisburgh artefacts, but this can only be established if and when human fossils are discovered here.
The record of our lineage in Europe and Asia now extends back to at least 1.75 million years. Human fossils are rare, but stone tools provide a more durable record of the spread of early humans at this time.