Ceprano skull

The oldest evidence of hominins in Europe is around 1.5 million years old, about 300,000 years younger than the earliest Asian hominin fossils and three million younger than the earliest African hominin fossils. The oldest evidence is stone tools in Europe were found at Orce Ravine in southern Spain that have been dated to 1.5 million years ago, [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic, July, 1997]

Very old hominin fossils from Europe are rare and of dubious quality. A skull fragment and a limb bone, dated to be between 1 million and 1.2 million years of age, discovered at site called Venta Micena near Orce in southeastern Spain, have been claimed as remains from the "first European." But scientists are not sure whether the remains are from a young human or a very young horse. About 100 flint tools found near Fuente Nueva in the southern province of Granada, Spain were dated at 1 million years ago.

More recent finds include a 400,000-year-old skull found in Arago, France, labeled as “Homo erectus” but with a larger brain than the “Homo erectus “ average; Hominin footprints, dated to between 325,000 and 385,000 years ago, found in the remains of pyroclastic flow on Roccaminfina volcano in southern Italy; thousands of 300,000-year-old fossils from al least 33 hominins found at site near Madrid called Sima des Huesos (Pit of Bon)

Ancient human fossil remains from Italy, Spain, Britain and Germany have all been dated to be more than 500,000 years of age. Scientists are not sure whether the hominin species are “Homo erectus” , archaic “Homo sapiens” or “Homo heidelbergensis” , a species of “Homo” named after a 500,000-year-old jawbone found in 1907 near Heidelberg, Germany that some scientists believe evolved into Neanderthals. Its tools included the Acheulan hand ax.

Some scientists believe that all their hominin remains found in Europe come from three species: “Homo erectus “, “Homo sapiens” and Neanderthals. Others believe that the “Homo “ tree is much more complex. They say other species such as “Homo heidelbergensis” and perhaps other hominin species not yet discovered may have existed as well.

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org; Hominin Species talkorigins.org ; Paleoanthropology Links talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations genographic.nationalgeographic.com ; Humin Origins Washington State University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; BBC The evolution of man" bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ArchaeologyInfo.com ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life ; PBS Evolution: Humans pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/evolution; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society paleoanthro.org; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization) iho.asu.edu/; The Leakey Foundation leakeyfoundation.org; The Stone Age Institute stoneageinstitute.org; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Turkana Basin Institute turkanabasin.org; Koobi Fora Research Project kfrp.com; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa maropeng.co.za ; Blombus Cave Project web.archive.org/web; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution journals.elsevier.com/; American Journal of Physical Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Evolutionary Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Comptes Rendus Palevol journals.elsevier.com/ ; PaleoAnthropology paleoanthro.org.

Migration of Hominins to Europe

Arago fossils
Europe's cold climate was believed to have deterred hominins from arriving earlier in Europe than did. But this theory has been largely thrown out because Europe didn’t get really cold until the ice ages of Europe began around 900,000 years ago, when the first hominin remains were discovered. Many scientists now believe that competition from dangerous predators such as saber-toothed tigers and giant hyenas that inhabited Europe between 1.5 million and 500,000 years ago is what kept early hominins out of Europe.

Scientists believe that the first Europeans arrived by one of three ways: 1) across the Strait of Gibraltar, 2) overland from Asia Minor, or 3) across the Mediterranean via Sicily. Even with a drop in sea levels occurring during ice ages arriving from north Africa via Gibraltar or Sicily would have entailed a sea crossing — something many scientists believe 500,000-year-old hominins in that area were not capable of.

Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southhampton in England told National Geographic, "In Europe there are long winter months when the food supply shuts down, so humans had to live on meat like carnivores, rather on vegetation like most other primates."

By 350,000 years ago, glaciers covered much of Europe and humans were forced to abandon much of the continent. The only evidence of hominin from this period are the 300,000-year-old remains of 27 individuals found in Sierra de Atapuerca.

Scientists still debate whether or not Homo erectus made it to Europe. The cooler climate in Europe would have at least kept the tropical species from prospering there, especially during the ice ages. The only European remains attributed to Homo erectus are skull fragments excavated in Europe came from Mauer, Germany. The fragments seem to be consistent with other “ Homo erectus “ skulls but the results are far from conclusive. Near where the skull fragments were found, archaeologist found stone choppers and pieces of elephant bone that may have been smashed by the stone choppers.



Atapuerca in northern Spain is an anthropological and archaeological site designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000 and home to some of the oldest hominin remains found in Europe. According to UNESCO: “The caves of the Sierra de Atapuerca contain a rich fossil record of the earliest human beings in Europe, from nearly one million years ago and extending up to the Common Era. They represent an exceptional reserve of data, the scientific study of which provides priceless information about the appearance and the way of life of these remote human ancestors. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage site website =]

The Archaeological Site of Atapuerca is located near the city of Burgos, in the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León, in the North of the Iberian Peninsula. The property encompasses 284.119 ha and contains a rich fossil record of the earliest human beings in Europe, from nearly one million years ago and extending into the Common Era. It constitutes an exceptional scientific reserve that provides priceless information about the appearance and way of life of these remote human ancestors. =

“The Sierra de Atapuerca sites provide unique testimony of the origin and evolution both of the existing human civilization and of other cultures that have disappeared. The evolutionary line or lines from the African ancestors of modern humankind are documented in these sites. The earliest and most abundant evidence of humankind in Europe is found in the Sierra de Atapuerca. The sites constitute an exceptional example of continuous human occupation, due to their special ecosystems and their geographical location. The fossil remains in the Sierra de Atapuerca are an invaluable reserve of information about the physical nature and the way of life of the earliest human communities in Europe. In addition, painted and engraved panels have been recorded, with geometrical motifs, hunting scenes, and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures.

Henry McHenry wrote in Encyclopædia Britannica: Atapuerca is a “site of several limestone caves near Burgos in northern Spain, known for the abundant human (genus Homo) remains discovered there beginning in 1976. The site called Sima del Elefante (“Pit of the Elephant”) contains the earliest evidence of humans in western Europe—fragments of a jawbone and teeth date to 1.1–1.2 million years ago. The nearby site of Gran Dolina contains human remains dating to about 800,000 years ago and some of the earliest tools found in western Europe. Paleoanthropologists who first described the fossils attributed them to a new species, H. antecessor, which they proposed as the ancestor of modern humans (H. sapiens) owing to certain distinctly modern facial features. Other researchers, however, hesitate to accept this assertion and group the fossils with similar remains classified as H. heidelbergensis.” [Source: Henry McHenry, Encyclopædia Britannica]

‘First Europeans’ Lived 1.2 Million Years Ago in Northern Spain

Location of Atapuerca

In 2008, scientists wrote in Nature that they had found “the first European” — a fragmentary hominin jawbone and some worn teeth, dated to 1.1 to 1.2 million years ago, at the at the Sima del Elefante cave site in the Sierra de Atapuerca. in northern Spain. The fragments are 300,000 years older than any previously found in Europe.José María Bermúdez de Castro at the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, member of the research team that made the discovery, said that, although the new find pushes back the hominin fossil record in Europe, there is indirect evidence that hominins arrive in Europe even earlier. “[Stone tools from] Pirro Nord in Italy may be older than Sima del Elefante,” he says. “Likewise, the Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3 Spanish sites have yielded stone tools probably 1.3 million years old.”[Source: Colin Barras, New Scientist, 26 March 2008 *]

Colin Barras wrote in in New Scientist: “The association of fossil remains with stone tools at the new site is important, says Eudald Carbonell at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, who led the research team. “We have human remains, stone tools and bones with cut marks,” he says. “It’s all very consistent with occupation here 1.1 million years ago.” Carbonell says the fragmentary remains have been tentatively assigned to the species Homo antecessor, also known from 800,000 year-old remains at Gran Dolina in Spain and Ceprano in Italy. “Our hypothesis is that antecessor is derived from Homo georgicus, found at Dmanisi, Georgia, in 1.8 million year-old deposits,” he says. Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, UK,, who was not involved with the study, is more cautious. “Even if antecessor is a valid species, we don’t know where it originated,” he says. *\

“The Dmanisi hominins are the earliest found outside Africa, says Bermúdez de Castro. “In my view, after that first demographic spread out of Africa, a rapid expansion to the east and west could happen,” he says. “It is very probable that hominins arrived in the extreme parts of the Eurasian continent by 1.6 million years.” Warm and humid conditions at the time helped speed up the migration, Bermúdez de Castro thinks. “It is important to remember that we are ‘tropical’ primates,” he says. “The Sierra de Atapuerca is 1000 metres above sea level. So we assume the climate was warmer than today when hominins arrived there.” *\

“Because the fossil record is so patchy around one million years ago, the best evidence for hominin activity comes from the stone tools, says Carbonell. “The interesting thing is that, in Africa at this time, the stone tools are ‘Mode 2’,” he says. Mode 2 tools included classic hand-axes that are not found in Mode 1 industries. “In Europe, we only have Mode 1 – at that moment the Africans were more developed than the Europeans.”“ *\

Europe’s Earliest Humans Did Not Use Fire for Cooking


Research by scientists at the University of York and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona revealed that Europe’s earliest humans did not use fire for cooking, but had a balanced diet of meat and plants – all eaten raw. According to the University of York: “Studying dental plaque from a 1.2 million year old hominin (early human species), recovered by the Atapuerca Research Team in 2007 in Sima del Elefante in northern Spain, archaeologists extracted microfossils to find the earliest direct evidence of food eaten by early humans. These microfossils included traces of raw animal tissue, uncooked starch granules indicating consumption of grasses, pollen grains from a species of pine, insect fragments and a possible fragment of a toothpick. [Source: University of York, December 15, 2016]

“All detected fibres were uncharred, and there was also no evidence showing inhalation of microcharcoal – normally a clear indicator of proximity to fire. The timing of the earliest use of fire for cooking is hotly contested, with some researchers arguing habitual use started around 1.8 million years ago while others suggest it was as late as 300,000-400,000 years ago. Possible evidence for fire has been found at some very early sites in Africa. However, the lack of evidence for fire at Sima del Elefante suggests that this knowledge was not carried with the earliest humans when they left Africa. The earliest definitive evidence in Europe for use of fire is 800,000 years ago at the Spanish site of Cueva Negra, and at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel, a short time later. Taken together, this evidence suggests the development of fire technology occurred at some point between 800,000 and 1.2 million years ago, revealing a new timeline for when the earliest humans started to cook food.

“Dr Karen Hardy, lead author and Honorary Research Associate at the University of York and ICREA Research Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, said: “Obtaining evidence for any aspect of hominin life at this extremely early date is very challenging. Here, we have been able to demonstrate that these earliest Europeans understood and exploited their forested environment to obtain a balanced diet 1.2 million years ago, by eating a range of different foods and combining starchy plant food with meat.

“This new timeline has significant implications in helping us to understand this period of human evolution – cooked food provides greater energy, and cooking may be linked to the rapid increases in brain size that occurred from 800,000 years ago onwards. It also correlates well with previous research hypothesising that the timing of cooking is linked to the development of salivary amylase, needed to process cooked starchy food. Starchy food was an essential element in facilitating brain development, and contrary to popular belief about the ‘Paleodiet’, the role of starchy food in the Palaeolithic diet was significant.” Anita Radini, PhD student at the University of York said: “These results are very exciting, as they highlight the potential of dental calculus to store dietary and environmental information from deep in the human evolutionary past. It is also interesting to see that pollen remains are preserved often in better conditions than in the soil of the same age. Overall this is a very positive step in the discipline, in terms of preservation of material in the calculus matrix.”“

900,000-Year-Old Hand Axes from Spain

900,000-year-old hand ax from Spain

Hominins living in what is now Spain fashioned double-edged stone cutting tools as early as 900,000 years ago, almost twice as long ago as previously thought. Bruce Bower wrote in Science News: “ If confirmed, the new dates support the idea that the manufacture and use of teardrop-shaped stone implements, known as hand axes, spread rapidly from Africa into Europe and Asia beginning roughly 1 million years ago, say geologist Gary Scott and paleontologist Luis Gibert, both of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California. [Source: Bruce Bower, Science News, September 3, 2009 ~|~]

“Evidence of ancient reversals of Earth's magnetic field in soil at two archaeological sites indicates that hand axes date to 900,000 years ago in one location and to 760,000 years ago in the other, Scott and Gibert report in the Sept. 3 Nature. Until now, most researchers thought that hand axes unearthed at these sites were made between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. ~|~

“Other European hand ax sites date to no more than 500,000 years ago. In contrast, hand axes date to roughly 1.7 million years ago in eastern Africa. And age estimates of 1.2 million years and 800,000 years for hand axes from two Israeli sites indicate that this tool-making style spread out of Africa long before the origin of Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago. Excavations in southern China have also yielded 800,000-year-old hand axes (SN: 3/4/00, p. 148). Fossils from ancient human ancestors have not been found with the Israeli and Chinese artifacts.~|~

“Earlier analyses of magnetic reversals in soil at other sites in southern Spain indicate that single-edged stone tools appeared there around 1.3 million years ago, Gibert says (SN: 1/4/97, p. 12). Population movements back and forth between Africa and Europe must have occurred at that time, possibly via vessels across the Strait of Gibraltar, he hypothesizes. "Then at 900,000 years ago, we now have the oldest evidence of hand axes in Europe, which represents a second migration from Africa that brought a new stone-tool culture," Gibert says. ~|~

“Scott and Gibert's "surprisingly old ages" for the Spanish hand axes bring the chronology of ancient Europe's settlement in line with that of Asia, remarks archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Europe contains relatively few stone-tool sites from around 1 million years ago, making it difficult to reconstruct the timing of ancient population pulses into the continent, Roebroeks says. ~|~

“Although new estimated ages for soil layers at the Spanish sites appear credible, the suggestion that hand axes there are by far the oldest in Europe "is extremely daring, to put it mildly," comments archaeologist Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield in England. In his view, the precise depth of the hand axes when they were unearthed several decades ago remains unclear. It's possible that these finds actually came from soil layers that Scott and Gibert place at no more than 600,000 years old, Dennell says. ~|~

“Scott and Gibert first identified the geological position of specific magnetic reversals in sediment at an ancient lakeshore near the Spanish sites. Dates for these reversals have already been established in previous studies. The researchers compared these magnetic shifts to those at the hand ax sites to date the tools. These data provide minimum ages for the Spanish finds. "Older ages are possible but would be odd," Gibert says.” ~|~

Ceprano Man and Homo Antecessor

Homo Antecessor reconstruction
In 1994, forty-five miles southeast of Rome near the town of Ceprano, Italian archaeologist Italo Biddittu discovered hundred of bone fragments unearthed by a bulldozer building a highway. He and his colleagues pieced enough of the fragments together by the spring of 1996 to reveal most of the skullcap of a “Homo “ species between 800,000 and 900,000 years old. The skullcap, later dubbed Ceprano Man, was older than other “Homo” species found in Europe by 300,000 years.

Scientists tentatively labeled Ceprano man “Homo erectus” . Antonio Ascenzi told National Geographic, "Classic “Homo erectus “ has a slight crest along the center of its skull. This skull has no crest at all." Ceprano man's brain was also significantly larger than classic “Homo erectus” .

Nearly a 100 hominin fossils from a 10-year-old boy and five other individuals and 200 stone tools were found in an 800,000 year old strata at the Sierra de Atapuerca's Gran Dolina site in northern Spain in 1994 and 1995. The site was inadvertently revealed by a railroad excavation.

Some scientists describe this hominin as an entirely new species called “Homo Antecessor” (Antecessoris Latin for “explorer” or “pioneer”), which might be a common ancestor for both modern man an Neanderthals. The skull of the boy had features similar to both species, including a prominent jaw, prominent brow ridges and projecting face like Neanderthals and sunken cheekbones and tooth development similar to modern humans. Many paleontologists dismiss the claims because they say it is difficult draw to many conclusions from bones of children.

Boxgrove Man and First Humans in Northern Europe

20120202-Homo_antecessor_female 2.jpg
Homo Antecessor female
Thirty-two black flint tools found in river sediments dated to 700,000 years ago in Akefeild in eastern England are th oldest evidence of hominins living in northern Europe. The tools date to a time when England was warm and lions, elephants and saber tooth tigers lived there. Scientists think the humans most likely migrated there during a warm period and did not colonize the area. Before the tools were discovered the earliest evidence of early humans in northern Europe was Boxgrove Man dated to 500,000 years ago.

A 500,000-year-old shinbone from a towering six-foot-tall, 200-pound hominin was found near the town of Boxgrove a few miles inland from the English Channel in southern England in 1994. Named Boxgrove Man, the bone was initially heralded by British scientists as belonging to "the earliest European" but later downgraded to belonging to the "first Briton." Boxgrove Man is believed to have arrived between 478,000 and 524,000 years ago, when the British Isles were connected to the European continent by a land bridge.

The shinbone and numerous stone tools found with it were dated by the presence of a vole with molar that disappeared about half million years. The bone was tentatively identified as belonging to “Homo heidelbergensis”. It contain faint chew marks that may have been left by a wild animal that scavenged the corpse. The oldest British remains before that time was a 300,000-year-old skull found in Swanscombe, England.

Hominins Migrated to Cold Northern Regions 800,000 Years Ago Without Fire

According to a study published in the March 14, 2011 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, and Professor Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands was that early hominins in Europe pushed into the continent’s colder northern latitudes more than 800,000 years ago without the habitual control of fire, said Roebroecks. [Source: University of Colorado Boulder, March 14, 2011 ^^^]

According to the University of Colorado: “Archaeologists have long believed the control of fire was necessary for migrating early humans as a way to reduce their energy loss during winters when temperatures plunged below freezing and resources became more scarce. "This confirms a suspicion we had that went against the opinions of most scientists, who believed it was impossible for humans to penetrate into cold, temperate regions without fire," Villa said. ^^^

“Recent evidence from an 800,000-year-old site in England known as Happisburgh indicates hominins — likely Homo heidelbergenis, the forerunner of Neanderthals — adapted to chilly environments in the region without fire, Roebroeks said. The simplest explanation is that there was no habitual use of fire by early humans prior to roughly 400,000 years ago, indicating that fire was not an essential component of the behavior of the first occupants of Europe's northern latitudes, said Roebroeks. "It is difficult to imagine these people occupying very cold climates without fire, yet this seems to be the case."” ^^^

130,000-Year-Old Axes in Crete: Sign of Seafaring Homo Erectus?

Hand axes found on Crete suggest hominids made sea crossings to go 'out of Africa' Bruce Bower wrote in Science News: “ Human ancestors that left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago to see the rest of the world were no landlubbers. Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homo species — perhaps Homo erectus — had used rafts or other seagoing vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island. [Source: Bruce Bower, Science News, January 11, 2010 +]

“Several hundred double-edged cutting implements discovered at nine sites in southwestern Crete date to at least 130,000 years ago and probably much earlier, Strasser reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Archaeology. Many of these finds closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by H. erectus, he says. It was around that time that H. erectus spread from Africa to parts of Asia and Europe. +\

“Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago. Traditional theories hold that early farming groups in southern Europe and the Middle East first navigated vessels to Crete and other Mediterranean islands at that time. "We're just going to have to accept that, as soon as hominids left Africa, they were long-distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place," Strasser says. Other researchers have controversially suggested that H. erectus navigated rafts across short stretches of sea in Indonesia around 800,000 years ago and that Neandertals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar perhaps 60,000 years ago. +\

“Questions remain about whether African hominids used Crete as a stepping stone to reach Europe or, in a Stone Age Gilligan's Island scenario, accidentally ended up on Crete from time to time when close-to-shore rafts were blown out to sea, remarks archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Only in the past decade have researchers established that people reached Crete before 6,000 years ago, Tykot says. Strasser's team cannot yet say precisely when or for what reason hominids traveled to Crete. Large sets of hand axes found on the island suggest a fairly substantial population size, downplaying the possibility of a Gilligan Island's scenario, in Strasser's view. +\

In excavations conducted near Crete's southwestern coast during 2008 and 2009, Strasser's team unearthed hand axes at caves and rock shelters. Most of these sites were situated in an area called Preveli Gorge, where a river has gouged through many layers of rocky sediment. At Preveli Gorge, Stone Age artifacts were excavated from four terraces along a rocky outcrop that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Tectonic activity has pushed older sediment above younger sediment on Crete, so 130,000-year-old artifacts emerged from the uppermost terrace. Other terraces received age estimates of 110,000 years, 80,000 years and 45,000 years. These minimum age estimates relied on comparisons of artifact-bearing sediment to sediment from sea cores with known ages. Geologists are now assessing whether absolute dating techniques can be applied to Crete's Stone Age sites, Strasser says. +\

“Intriguingly, he notes, hand axes found on Crete were made from local quartz but display a style typical of ancient African artifacts. "Hominids adapted to whatever material was available on the island for tool making," Strasser proposes. "There could be tools made from different types of stone in other parts of Crete."” +\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Spanish hand ax from Nature

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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