Ceprano skull

The oldest known human remains in Europe date back to about 1.4 million years ago and were recovered from what is now Spain. This about 200,000 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 — from western Ukraine and possibly Orce Ravine in southern Spain — have been dated to 1.4 million years ago, [Sources: Pallab Ghosh, BBC, August 10, 2023; Rick Gore, National Geographic, July, 1997]

Scientists believe the earliest hominins in Europe were Homo erectus, which originated in Africa and arrived in Europe via southwest Asia. 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.

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.

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). In 2016, scientists working at the excavation of the site of Marathousa 1 in Greece revealed they had found exceptionally preserved animal remains and stone tools from roughly 300,000 to 600,000 years ago, including the butchered remains of a Palaeoloxodon antiquus, a straight-tusked elephant that could grow up to 13 feet tall. In 2013, Archaeology reported: Electron spin resonance, uranium series isotopic analysis, and infrared/post-infrared luminescence dating — all these advanced techniques were applied to determine the age of a hominin jawbone found in a cave in Serbia. The mandible, with three molars attached, is between 397,000 and 525,000 years old, placing it among the oldest hominin fossils in Europe. The sample, which lacks features associated with Neanderthals and may come from a Homo erectus, might help explain how these early human lineages evolved and were distributed across the continent. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, March-April 2013; Samir S. Patel Archaeology magazine, March-April 2016]

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 ; Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution

Did Ancestors of Humans and Apes Originate in Europe, Not in Africa?

In 2023,Charles Q. Choi wrote in Live Science: An ape fossil found in Turkey may controversially suggest that the ancestors of African apes and humans first evolved in Europe before migrating to Africa, a research team says in a new study. The proposal breaks with the conventional view that hominines — the group that includes humans, the African apes (chimps, bonobos and gorillas) and their fossil ancestors — originated exclusively in Africa. However, the discovery of several hominine fossils in Europe and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) has already led some researchers to argue that hominines first evolved in Europe. This view suggests that hominines later dispersed into Africa between 7 million and 9 million years ago. [Source: Charles Q. Choi, Live Science, August 31, 2023]

Study co-senior author David Begun, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto, clarified that they are talking about the common ancestor of hominines, and not about the human lineage after it diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living relatives. "Since that divergence, most of human evolutionary history has occurred in Africa," Begun told Live Science. "It is also most likely that the chimpanzee and human lineages diverged from each other in Africa." The scientists detailed their findings Aug. 23, 2023 in the journal Communications Biology.

In the new study, the researchers analyzed a newly identified ape fossil from the 8.7 million-year-old site of Çorakyerler in central Anatolia. They dubbed the species Anadoluvius turkae. "Anadolu" is the modern Turkish word for Anatolia, and "turk" refers to Turkey. The fossil suggests that A. turkae likely weighed about 110 to 130 pounds (50 to 60 kilograms), or about the weight of a large male chimpanzee.

Based on the fossils of other animals found alongside it — such as giraffes, warthogs, rhinos, antelope, zebras, elephants, porcupines and hyenas — as well as other geological evidence, the researchers suggest that the newfound ape lived in a dry forest, more like where the early humans in Africa may have dwelled, rather than in the forest settings of modern great apes. A. turkae's powerful jaws and large, thickly enameled teeth suggest that it may have dined on hard or tough foods such as roots, so A. turkae likely spent a great deal of time on the ground.

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.

Oldest Evidence of Hominins in Europe — 1.4-million-year-old Stone Tools from Ukraine

Stone tools unearthed at a quarry in the 1970s and dated in the 2020s using an innovative technique are the oldest evidence of our human ancestors in Europe. Will Dunham of Reuters wrote: A dating method based on cosmic rays has identified stone tools found in western Ukraine as the oldest-known evidence of human occupation in Europe — 1.4 million years ago — showing that the peopling of the continent occurred hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously known. Researchers said the stone tools — the most primitive kind known — were initially unearthed near the town of Korolevo in the Carpathian foothills along the Tysa river, close to Ukraine's borders with Hungary and Romania. But their age had remained unclear. The new method determined the age of the sediment layer containing the stone tools, making this site critical for understanding how humans first spread into Europe during warm spells — called interglacial periods — that interrupted the Ice Age's grip on the continent. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, March 7, 2024]

The researchers concluded that the maker of the tools likely was Homo erectus, an early human species that arose roughly 2 million years ago and spread across Africa, Asia and Europe before disappearing perhaps 110,000 years ago. "No bones were found at Korolevo, only stone tools. But the age suggests that Homo erectus was the only possible human species at the time. We know very little about our earliest ancestors. They used stone tools for butchery and probably used fire," said Czech Academy of Sciences archeologist Roman Garba, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

Homo erectus was the first member of our evolutionary lineage with body proportions similar to our species, Homo sapiens, though with a smaller brain. The tools, made of volcanic rock, were fashioned in what is called the Oldowan style. While quite simple — flaked tools such as choppers, scrapers or basic cutting instruments — they represent the dawn of human technology. Until now, the oldest-known evidence of humans in Europe was about 1.2-1.1 million years old from a site called Atapuerca in Spain.

The heavily weathered flake, chipped and notched stone tools were made from local volcanic raw material (glassy dacite). They were found in the Loess-palaeosol sequence between the Gostry Verkh and and Beyvar hills areas of the Korolevo I archaeological site and the Korolevo II site near the Tisza River in in western Ukraine. The research was published in the journal Nature on March 6, 2024. [Source: Christina Larson, Associated Press, March 7, 2024]

Some stone tools from Korolevo I, Ukraine: a) chopper core; b) flake with bifacial treatment; c) multi-platform core; d) Kombewa flake; e) flake with parallel scar pattern, Scale bars – 3 centimeters

Insights on European Hominins (Homo erectus) Gleaned from the 1.4-Million-Year-Old Ukraine Stone Tools

Reuters reported; The Korolevo findings provide insight into the route of the first human expansion into Europe. Homo erectus fossils from 1.8 million years ago are known from a Caucasus site in Georgia called Dmanisi. Coupled with Korolevo, this suggests Homo erectus entered Europe from the east or southeast, migrating along the Danube river, Garba said. "Korolevo is the northernmost outpost found so far of what we presume to be Homo erectus and is testimony to the intrepidness of this ancestor," Czech Academy of Sciences geoscientist and study co-author John Jansen added. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, March 7, 2024]

Europe was later colonized by other now-extinct human species including Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago, arriving in significant numbers in Europe perhaps around 40,000-45,000 years ago. The Homo erectus pioneers encountered a Europe inhabited by large mammals including mammoths, rhinos, hippos, hyenas and saber-toothed cats. "Most likely they were scavengers, looking for carcasses left by hyenas or other predators, but what attracted them to Korolevo was a source of high-quality volcanic rock, very good for making stone tools," Garba said.

The chipped stone tools were likely used for cutting meat and perhaps scraping animal hides, Garba said. The researchers suspect evidence of European human occupation even older than Korolevo will turn up. "The question is not 'if' but 'when' we will find a site of similar or older age somewhere else in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia," Garba said.

Katie Hunt of CNN wrote: The tools from the Korolevo site fill in “a gap in early hominin presence in Europe in both time and space,” said Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. The finding suggests that at least one spread of hominins into Europe was from east to west — and that hominins could inhabit higher latitudes of northern Europe before they colonized southern Europe. “Of course, we can’t know if this was a temporary incursion into this area, or a more permanent migration, without more data from more sites,” she said. [Source: Katie Hunt, CNN, March 7, 2024]

The study team also looked at the climate and habitat of the area over the past 2 million years. The researchers found that a warmer, interglacial period, when temperatures would have been warmer than the present day, coincided with the age of the stone tools. Garba said pollen data suggested a forest ecosystem. Korolevo would have been appealing to ancient humans because it’s near the Tisza River, which leads to the Danube, and there was a readily available source of hard rock to knap stone tools, Garba said.

Possible scenario for the migration of homo erectus in Europe: a) archaeological sites and dispersal routes; the maximum extent of the Eurasian ice sheets is shown with gray dashes; blue arrows indicate possible early human dispersal routes; b) Korolevo I archaeological site, with excavation XIII in the red box

Cosmic Clock Dating of the 1.4-Million-Year-Old Ukraine Stone Tools

Some 90,000 stone tools made by early humans have been found at the open-air Korolevo site but no human fossils. The exposed conditions make it harder for fossils to be preserved. The soil is also acidic, which can accelerate decomposition of artifacts, Garba said. Initial dating of the Korolevo archaeological site suggested it had been used for more than 800,000 years. [Source: Katie Hunt, CNN, March 7, 2024]

CNN reported: To determine the ages of the stone tools in the lowermost archaeological layer more accurately, the team used a relatively new dating method that involved analyzing radioactive particles inside mineral grains that were produced by cosmic rays — charged particles that travel through space and rain down on Earth. “It’s like a cosmic clock that unleashes human history,” said Garba,

The shower of radiation as cosmic rays interact with the atmosphere can penetrate rock, creating cosmogenic nuclides, or isotopes. Scientists measure the rate of decay of these nuclides to determine how long the previously exposed rock has been shielded from cosmogenic nuclides once buried below Earth’s surface where the isotopes can’t form. Garba‘s colleagues measured two nuclides, aluminum-26 and beryllium-10, found in quartz grains from seven pebbles discovered in the same layer as the stone tools. Using two methods of calculation, the researchers determined they were 1.4 million years old. “It’s very complicated to process the samples,” Garba said. “You need two to three months of everyday work to grind, clean and separate the sample.”

According to Reuters: It has been notoriously difficult to determine the age of Paleolithic sites like Korolevo. The study dated the tools, left by their makers on a river bed, by determining when the layer bearing the artifacts was buried under overlaying sediment. "Earth is constantly bombarded by galactic cosmic rays. When these rays — mainly protons and alpha particles — penetrate Earth's atmosphere, they generate a secondary shower of particles — neutrons and muons — that, in turn, penetrates into the subsurface," geoscientist and study co-author Mads Knudsen of Aarhus University in Denmark said. These particles react with minerals in rocks to produce radioactive nuclides, a class of atoms. The sediment was dated based on the ratio of two nuclides, thanks to their differing pace of radioactive decay. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, March 7, 2024]

While the researchers suggested the tools may be as old as 1.4 million years, other experts say the study methodology suggests that they may be just over 1 million years old, placing them in roughly the same date range as other ancient tools unearthed in Spain. The very earliest stone tools of this type were found in eastern Africa and date back to 2.8 million years ago, said Rick Potts, who directs the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program. [Source: Christina Larson, Associated Press, March 7, 2024]

1.4 Million-Year-Old Hominin Jawbone Found in Spain ?

In June 2022, scientists discovered of a 1.4 million-year-old jawbone, with a tooth, at Sima del Elefante (Spanish for "Pit of the Elephant"), an archeological site in the Atapuerca Mountains near the city of Burgos in northern Spain that's known for its rich fossil record. in Spain. The partial face of a hominid may be the oldest known ancient human relative in Europe. Prior to this discovery, the earliest known hominid fossils unearthed in Europe (found at Sima del Elefante in 2008) were dated to 1.2 million years ago. That find included a portion of a mandible, or the lower jawbone, and several bone fragments. [Source: Jennifer Nalewicki, Live Science, July 17, 2022

Live Science reported: The most recent discovery came as a surprise to researchers, who weren't expecting to find fossils that were older than those already uncovered at the site. The upper jawbone, located approximately 6.5 feet (2 meters) deeper in the clay soil than the fossils found in 2008, was discovered by Édgar Téllez, a doctoral student at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution in Burgos, according to El País, a daily newspaper in Spain. Paleoanthropologists believe that, similar to the previous fossilized find, the upper jawbone exhibits characteristics that showcase the evolutionary pattern of the human face. "In this maxilla there is also a vertical projection, as in the mandible found in [2008], which could indicate that this modern face was already present at this time," Téllez told El País.

In other words, Téllez and his team theorize that the bone could be that of someone who was more closely related to modern-day Europeans than more ape-like primates, such as Homo habilis, an extinct species of archaic humans from Africa dating to the Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago). The researchers believe that the fossil may have come from Homo antecessor (Latin for "pioneer man"), whose position in the human family tree is controversial but may be a close cousin of modern humans and Neanderthals, according to a 1999 study published in the Journal of Human Evolution. (The first fossilized remains of Homo antecessor were found at Atapuerca in 1994.)

John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wasn't affiliated with the recent dig, said that the new discovery helps give insight into the population that initially inhabited this area. "We don't know yet exactly where this piece of the upper jaw is going to fit, and it's going to take a lot of work and comparison for that team to determine [this]," Hawks told Live Science. "But whatever they determine, this is tied to a site with evidence of behavior. And every piece that we have that's tied to a site with evidence of behavior, such as making stone tools or hunting, tells us the behavioral capacities of ancestors and relatives of ours. For me, that's the important part." The researchers at the site said that it will take additional study before they can determine the exact age of the upper jawbone and whether it's related to the other fossils found there.

Atapuerca, Spain — Hominins from 1.2 Million Years Ago


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. Hominin-related fossils dated to 1.2 million years ago have been found there. 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 1994 and 1995. The site was inadvertently revealed by a railroad excavation.

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.

First Hominins in Northern Europe and Britain, 850,000 Years Ago

The earliest evidence of humans in Britain is found at Happisburgh in Norfolk, where lithic artefacts and fauna have eroded from coastal deposits. The site is dated to 850,000 years old or older. Environmental data suggesting a relatively cold climate at the time of occupation. The Happisburgh site is particularly significant as it has pushed back the estimate of human presence in Northern Europe. It is also the location of the oldest hominin footprints located outside of Africa. [Source: University College London]

Archaeologists digging on a Norfolk beach in found the flint tools that show the first humans were living in Britain much earlier than previously thought. Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: While digging along the, archaeologists discovered 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into primitive cutting and piercing tools. The stone tools were unearthed from sediments that are thought to have been laid down either 840,000 or 950,000 years ago, making them the oldest human artefacts ever found in Britain. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, July 7 2010]

Researchers led by the Natural History Museum and British Museum in London began excavating sites near Happisburgh in 2001 as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project and soon discovered tools from the stone age beneath ice-age deposits. So far, though, they have found no remains of the ancient people who made them. "This would be the 'holy grail' of our work," said Stringer. "The humans who made the Happisburgh tools may well have been related to the people of similar antiquity from Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor, or 'pioneer man'."

According to the BBC: Because of the missing fossil evidence, it is unclear what species of humans were in Happisburgh, but later remains in other parts of Europe suggest they may have been a more advanced species called Homo antecessor. The Happisburgh species of humans might have evolved into the Neanderthals, who were well established by 400,000 years ago.

In neighbouring Suffolk lies another site, Pakefield, which is dated to 700,000 years old, with fauna and environmental data suggesting a Mediterranean climate. No hominin remains have been recovered from these sites; however, the dates, human-made tools, and the size of the hominin footprints may indicate a Homo antecessor or a similar hominin (Ashton et al. 2014). [Source: University College London]

700,000-Year-Old Stone Tools Found in Greece

In June 2023, the Greek Culture Ministry announced that stone tools and animal fossils dated about 700,000 years ago had been found on the sides of an open coal mine in Megalopolis, southern Greece, the oldest-known archaeological site in the country, pushing back the time when the first known hominins lived there by up to 250,000 years, Associated Press reported: The Greek site was one of five investigated in the Megalopolis area during a five-year project involving an international team of experts, a Culture Ministry statement said. It was found to contain rough stone tools from the Lower Palaeolithic period — about 3.3 million to 300,000 years ago — and the remains of an extinct species of giant deer, elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros and a macaque monkey. It's not clear which ancient hominin used the site, but researchers suspect it was archaic modern humans (Homo sapiens). [Source: Nicholas Paphitis, Associated Press, June 2, 2023]

The project was directed by Panagiotis Karkanas of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Eleni Panagopoulou from the Greek Culture Ministry and Katerina Harvati, a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Tübingen in Germany. The artifacts are “simple tools, like sharp stone flakes, belonging to the Lower Paleolithic stone tool industry,” the co-directors said. They said it's possible the items were produced by Homo antecessor, the hominin species dating from that period in other parts of Europe. Homo antecessor is believed to have been the last common ancestor of modern humans and their extinct Neanderthal cousins, who diverged about 800,000 years ago. “However, we will not be able to be sure until hominin fossil remains are recovered,” the project directorss said. “(The site) is the oldest currently known hominin presence in Greece, and it pushes back the known archaeological record in the country by up to 250,000 years.”

The tools, which were likely used for butchering animals and processing wood or other plant matter, were made about 700,000 years ago, though the researchers said they were awaiting further analyses to refine the dating. “We are very excited to be able to report this finding, which demonstrates the great importance of our region for understanding hominin migrations to Europe and for human evolution in general,” the three co-directors said.

Discoveries at the Greek Site with the 700,000-Year-Old Stone Tools

The Megalopolis Basin in Arcadia, which hosts one of the largest lignite (coal) mines in Greece, is located about 200 kilometers (124 miles) southwest of Athens. Live Science reported: Mining activity revealed five new sites in the basin, which "exposed the fossil-bearing sediments to a much greater depth, thus revealing older remains," Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany and co-project lead, told Live Science. [Source: Kristina Killgrove, Live Science, June 9, 2023]

The most recent site, Choremi 7, dating to around 280,000 years ago, yielded stone tools as well as deer bones with evidence of cut marks. Tripotamos 4, at 400,000 years old, had a large concentration of stone tools and evidence of new methods of stone working compared to older sites. These sites are important for understanding the technological development of the Lower Paleolithic period (3.3 million to 300,000 years ago), according to a statement from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Sport. At a site called Marathousa 2 dating to 450,000 years ago, the researchers discovered evidence that ancient human relatives were killing and presumably eating hippopotamuses, as part of a hippo skeleton had stone tool cut marks on it. A nearby site, Marathousa 1, shows evidence of elephant butchering. "The cut marked hippopotamus bones from Marathousa 2, which were also found together with a lithic artifact, are the only such findings from the Middle Pleistocene of southeast Europe," Harvati said. The team found that megafaunal exploitation was likely common during this time period.

About 230 feet (70 meters) below the surface, the team discovered the site of Kyparissia 4. Dating to 700,000 years ago, it is the oldest archaeological site from the Lower Palaeolithic era in Greece. The researchers found numerous stone tools as well as remains of extinct species of giant deer, hippo, rhino, elephant and macaque. When glaciers covered much of Europe during a major ice age between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago, this region would have been ice-free."Our research reconstructing the paleoenvironment of the basin has indicated that it would have functioned as a refugium during Ice Age conditions," Harvati said, "allowing animal and plant populations — but also hominin groups — to survive during harsh glacial times when they would have disappeared from more northern parts of the European continent."

The "outstanding and highly unusual preservation conditions" in the Megalopolis basin mean that the team is recovering not only stone tools and fossils but also remains of small animals, wood, plant remains and even insects, according to Harvati. The basin has provided evidence that spans almost the entire middle Pleistocene, an important discovery considering southeastern Europe is relatively unexplored for this time period.

Did Early Hominin Sail Across the Mediterranean 500,000 Years Ago?

Archaeology magazine reported:“A research team led by Thomas Strasser of Providence College and Eleni Panagopoulou of the Greek Ministry of Culture announced the discovery of stone tools at two sites on the island of Crete that are between 130,000 and 700,000 years old. The tools resemble those made by Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus, showing that one of these early human ancestors boated across at least 40 miles of open sea to reach the island, the earliest indirect evidence of seafaring. "If hominins could move around the Mediterranean before 130,000 years ago, they could cross other bodies of water as well," says team member Curtis Runnels of Boston University, who helped analyze the tools. "When similar finds on other islands are confirmed, the door will be opened to the re-evaluation of every assumption we have made about early hominin migrations." [Source: Zach Zorich, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2011]

In 2022, scientists revealed more evidence that suggested our hominid ancestors — but not modern humans (homo sapiens) — crossed the Mediterranean nearly half a million years ago according to research in the journal Quaternary International. The crossing is believed to have taken in a step-by-step fashion in the Aegean Sea, where there are dozens of islands, including Rhodes and Crete, where tools and fossils hundreds of thousands of years ago have been found. The tools predate modern humans and it is inferred that they come from homo erectus. No evidence of boats has been found as wood and materials used to make ancient boats decays but tools like stone hand axes, which have been found, could been used to cut down trees and build rafts or boats. [Source: Troy Farah, Salon, December 28, 2022]

Homo Antecessor reconstruction
Previous theories suggested that homo erectus reached the Aegean Islands on foot during the ice ages when there may have been land bridges connected some of the islands. At least five of these events are known to have occurred during this time period. But the 2022 research says the land bridge theory is probably incorrect. Troy Farah wrote in Salon: Researchers reconstructed the shoreline of the Angean Island Chain, estimating the fluctuation of sea-level combined with the rate of the ground sinking due to tectonic plate activity. This data suggests that there's no way these islands would be accessible by foot, even if there were a major ice age. There would still be way too much water in the way, leaving the only explanation that they crossed another way — specifically, by sea."Therefore, the Aegean land/seascape motivated the archaic hominin to develop the necessary cognitive capabilities such as spatial awareness way-finding strategies and sea-craft building," the authors write. "And hence, the Aegean Sea may be considered the cradle of sea-crossing in the Mediterranean world."

This raises the question of why these ancient hominids would want to visit these islands. One theory is that they were hunting wild game, such as now-extinct dwarf elephants that lived in the region. "These compel us to reconsider the general view, that sea-crossing was a skill innovated and used solely by H. sapiens but instead it had been earlier acquired by earlier hominin lineages in the Middle Pleistocene," the authors write. The Middle Pleistocene was a geological epoch that occurred between about 780,000 and 125,000 years ago. "Furthermore, considering that the archaic hominins were able to cross the Aegean Sea, they would also have been capable of crossing the Gibraltar Straits," which separate southern Spain and the northern coast of Africa.

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, except Korolevo images from Roman Garba, from the Czech Academy of Sciences

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.

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