MADRID — A small piece of jawbone unearthed in a cave in Spain is the oldest known fossil of a human ancestor in Europe and suggests that people lived on the continent much earlier than previously believed, scientists say.
The researchers said the fossil found last year at Atapuerca in northern Spain, along with stone tools and animal bones, is up to 1.3-million years old. That would be 500,000 years older than a 1997 find that prompted the naming of a new species: Homo antecessor, or pioneer man, possibly a common ancestor to Neanderthals and modern humans.
A team co-led by Eudald Carbonell, director of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleo-Ecology and Social Evolution, reported its find in today's issue of Nature.
The dig team has tentatively classified the new fossil as representing an earlier example of Homo antecessor. And, critically, the team says the new one also bears similarities to much-older fossils dug up since 1983 in the Caucasus at a place called Dmanisi, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. These were dated as being up to 1.8-million years old.
"This leads us to a very important, very interesting conclusion," Carbonell said. It is this: that hominids — a group that includes the extinct relatives of modern humans — emerged from Africa, settled in the Caucasus and eventually evolved into Homo antecessor, and that the latter populated Europe at least 1.3-million years ago.