Published: Tue, April 10, 2018
Research | By Derrick Holloway

Finger bone points to early human exodus

Finger bone points to early human exodus

The fossils, including a partial skull and a lower jaw, belong to five different individuals including three young adults, an adolescent and a child estimated to be 8 years old. Scientists previously thought Homo sapiens departed Africa in a single, rapid migration some 60,000 years ago, journeying along the coastlines and subsisting on marine resources, said anthropologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Archaeologists working in Saudi Arabia have unearthed the oldest Homo sapien fossil yet recovered outside of Africa and the Levant, the region consisting of present day Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

The study was published online today (April 9) in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. This finding could change scientists understanding of human migration.

The bone itself was found poking out of the surface of the Al Wusta excavation site in 2016 by Iyad Zalmout, a palaeontologist with the Saudi Geological Survey.

The first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa as far back as 300,000 years ago, but debate still swirls about when exactly they left their birth continent.

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Before this revelation, it was imagined that early dispersals into Eurasia were unsuccessful and stayed confined to the Mediterranean timberlands of the Levant, on the doorstep of Africa.

Nevertheless, many archaeologists believe the Levant was a bottleneck and that humans did not travel further until 70,000 years ago.

The finger bone, obviously human, was then subjected to a method called uranium-series dating that uses a laser to measure the ratio between tiny traces of radioactive elements.

Some of these discoveries relate to genetic analyses that show humans interbred with groups like the Denisovans and Neanderthals. During this period they scoured the region for signs of early humans, seeing it as a natural "stepping stone" for humans leaving Africa.

Previous digs in the Arabian interior have uncovered tools which could have been used by early Homo sapiens.

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A sliver of bone the size of a Cheeto may radically revise our view of when and how humans left Africa.

During the time when the finger fossil owner was still alive, the Al Wusta site was a freshwater lake in an ancient grassland environment. The site where the fossil was found was once home to a freshwater lake. At that time, the region would have been mostly semi-arid grasslands, regularly refreshed and soaked by a monsoon season.

"It's quite a significant discovery because it confirms what we were expecting", co-author Mathieu Duval from Griffith University's Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE) explained to Xinhua. Dates obtained from other animal fossils and sediments at the Al Wusta site converged to about the same age, approximately 90,000 years ago.

Other archaeological finds, which their discoverers claim are even older, may very well be authentic but were not directly dated, said the research team.

Although some say it's hard to identify our species, Homo sapiens, by a single bone, the findings appear unimpeachable, says John Shea, an anthropologist at the State University of NY in Stony Brook who studies human origins, but wasn't involved in the study.

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