A team working in the hills of northern Spain reported in March that a piece of jawbone unearthed there is the oldest remains of early humans yet found in Europe. The new fossil—two inches of mandible with several teeth attached, assigned to the species Homo antecessor—is about 1.2 million years old. It turned up in a cave at Atapuerca, one of the most active paleontological sites in the world. Thousands of hominid fossils up to 800,000 years old had been previously found there, including some bearing cut marks indicative of cannibalism.
H. antecessor lived in the style of the primitive African hunter-gatherers, without fire or hand axes. Citing the discovery in the 1990s of 1.7-million-year-old bones in the Caucasus region of Georgia, archaeologists had proposed that the first hominid migrants from Africa established themselves in the Near East and then moved only slowly outward toward Asia and Europe. But the new find at Atapuerca suggests early humans arrived in Europe sooner and thrived there for hundreds of thousands of years longer than previously suspected.
“We have spent more than 30 years working in this site and are only now becoming aware of its scientific importance for understanding the first European migratory wave,” says lead author Eudald Carbonell of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona.