Jawbone of oldest known European found in Spain

Scientists have found a jawbone belonging to the oldest known human inhabitants of Europe who lived in a lush, game-rich region of what is now northern Spain about 1.2 million years ago.

The researchers who made the discovery at the archaeological site of Atapuerca have provisionally placed the first residents of the continent in a species called Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man", which was first named 10 years ago from remains found in one of the limestone caves at the same site.

The new lower jaw has anatomical features that are both primitively ancient and more modern, suggesting that these prehistoric humans belonged to a species that may have been a common ancestor of the Neanderthals, who became extinct about 40,000 years ago, and of modern man.

However, other scientists suggest that the jawbone is more likely to be from either a side-branch of the human family tree that later died out, or an intermediate species between the more ancient H. erectus and more recent H. neanderthalensis, rather than a direct ancestor of modern H. sapiens.

A member of the research team, Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, said that the jawbone – which contains teeth – was discovered in cave sediments alongside 32 stone tools. On the outside edge, it looks superficially similar to jawbones of H. erectus found at Dmanisi in Georgia, which date to about 1.7 million years ago, according to the study published in the journal Nature. However, the inside edge of the jaw is more modern-looking, it said.

"I think this part of human history is poorly known in Europe. We have very few fossils and artefacts. But this jawbone is the oldest human fossil we have from western Europe," said Dr de Castro, of Spain's National Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, in Burgos.

"The study of the human mandible suggests that the first settlement of western Europe could be related to an early demographic expansion out of Africa," he added.

Professor Chris Stringer, the head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said that the timing of the first humans' arrival in Europe had always been controversial. "While early H. erectus fossils are known from Dmanisi in Georgia, dated to about 1.7 million years ago, the oldest European fossils, from the Gran Dolina site at Atapuerca in Spain, and from Ceprano in Italy, are only about half of that age," Professor Stringer said.

"There are sites in Spain, France and Italy which 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.

"Now these excavations at another Atapuerca site, Sima del Elefante, have revealed part of the front of a human lower jaw containing several teeth, dated to about 1.1-1.2 million years ago," he said. "The jaw bone is small – perhaps from a female – and, on the outside surface, it mainly shows features found in earlier fossils of H. erectus and even H. habilis. But, on the internal surface, it is quite lightly built – an advanced feature found in later humans."

It is not known whether the species migrated to western Europe from Asia or Africa, or originated there from an ancestral stock that has yet to be identified. "However the specimen is classified, when combined with the emerging archaeological evidence, it suggests that southern Europe began to be colonised from western Asia not long after humans had emerged from Africa – something which many of us would have doubted even five years ago," he said. "I am cautious about inferring that this new find indicates that H. antecessor had originated in western Europe out of a founding population like the sample known from Dmanisi."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas