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In 1978, scientists from the Museum of Anthropology of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens began research in the Apidima cave, south of Greece. During these excavations the fragmented remains of two fossilized skulls, called Apidima 1 and Apidima 2.
However, at that time, the fossils could not be accurately analyzed or dated in the absence of an associated archaeological context.
It has taken more than 40 years for a team of researchers, led by the Greek university, to have achieved rebuild the two skulls and date them using modern radiometric techniques. The experts have also carried out a comparative analysis of the morphology and anatomy between both remains.
The results reveal that Apidima 1 belonged to a Homo sapiens, with a mixture of modern and primitive human traits, that lived about 210,000 years ago, while Apidima 2 was a Neanderthal from about 170,000 years ago.
The study suggests that both human groups were present during the Middle Pleistocene: First the early population of Homo sapiens, followed by the Neanderthal.
Until now, the oldest human fossil found outside of Africa was in Israel, where scientists discovered a jaw fragment belonging to a modern human who lived between 200,000 and 175,000 years.
“It is the earliest known presence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia, which indicates that the beginning of the dispersal of primitive modern humans out of Africa occurred much earlier and went much further than previously thought ”, specify the authors, led by researcher Katerina Harvati from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen (Germany), which support the hypothesis that multiple dispersions occurred.
Scientists further reveal that, of this early population of Homo sapiens that lived in Greece there have been no offspring, probably because the group did not survive.
Although there is no clear evidence, “these individuals lasted for quite a long time, for several thousand years, but I suspect that it was a small population and could have been subject to dramatic events and pressure from other groups arriving in the area. We don't know exactly how it happened ”, Harvati said at a press conference.
Contact between species
Southeastern Europe is not only considered as an important corridor of human dispersal from Africa, but also as one of the main glacial shelters in Mediterranean Europe. It is for this reason that the human fossil record in this region is more diverse than in other more isolated areas and less hospitable on the continent, and that is why the mixture of human groups is explained.
In this sense, Apidima 2 skull shows characteristics similar to those of Neanderthals, as thick rounded brow ridges.
These traits do not appear in Apidima 1, which features a combination of primitive and modern human features, such as a rounded posterior skull, unique to modern humans.
Ancient DNA evidence suggests that contact with the Neanderthal lineage may also have occurred during the Middle Pleistocene. "It was a complex scenario of dispersal of populations and possibly contacts," concludes Harvati.
Katerina Harvati et al. "Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia" Nature July 10, 2019.