The Japan Times
October 5, 1999
The Observer

New skulls double history of humans in Europe

Until last week the honor of being the first European had been accorded to a Spanish fossil found to be about 800,000 years old — and even this date was thought to be surprisingly early.

LONDON — Scientists have discovered the remains of the earliest Europeans: Two skulls, believed to be around 1.8 million years old, have been recovered from a site at Dmanisi in southern Georgia, in the Caucasus.

The discovery is startling because the bones predate the previous oldest bone fragments found in Europe by a million years. It had been thought that humans had not migrated from Africa into Europe until about a million years ago.

"This is really exciting, a terribly important discovery," said professor Leslie Aiello of the anthropology department at University College London. "If the dates are right, and I see no reason to believe they are wrong, then we will have to reappraise this chapter of our prehistory."

Until last week the honor of being the first true European had been accorded to a human fossil dug up several years ago at Gran Dolina, in northern Spain. Fragments of bone were found to be about 800,000 years old — and even this date was thought to be surprisingly early.

But the discovery on Europe's southeastern boundary, made by a team of Georgians and Germans, overturns this claim and leaves paleontologists with a headache — how did relatively primitive humans, probably of the species Homo erectus, manage to get into Europe so quickly after first appearing in Africa?

Scientists have dated the earliest Homo erectus fossils in Africa as being only a little more than 2 million years old. It was originally thought that the species, which evolved from ape-men called Australopithecines, had wandered the African savanna gradually developing survival skills, hunting techniques and tool-making prowess. They then began to spread into Asia and slowly west into Europe around a million years ago.

However, recent work by U.S. scientists has suggested the species may have begun to spread much earlier, reaching Indonesia about 1.7 million years ago. The Dmanisi discovery has added a twist to this new vision of prehistory, in which the first Europeans also appeared much earlier than expected. Just how they achieved this while still relatively primitive and unsophisticated is a major anthropological headache.

The Dmanisi team's German contingent, Antje Justus and Olaf Joris from the Romano-German Museum in Mainz, have been searching an old basalt lava bed at Dmanisi with two Georgian paleontologists, professor Leo Gabunia and Abesalon Vekua. A few years ago, they discovered a piece of human jaw that they said was extremely ancient, a claim treated with skepticism by other scientists.

But this summer the team uncovered two skulls that appear perfectly preserved, according to early reports. A series of simple stone chips were found near the bones, but there are no signs that these had been worked into recognizable tools.

No trace of fires has been found, although this is less surprising — humans are not thought to have learned to control fire until about a million years ago.

Scientists believe that about 1.8 million years ago Dmanisi was a grassland that provided homes for a wide range of animals, including sabertooth cats and elephants, and that the climate of the area was extremely warm — very similar to the African homeland of Homo erectus. The balmy weather may have proved highly tempting to our ancestors.

The discovery has been greeted with enthusiasm in Georgia. The president, Eduard Shevardnadze, has already visited the site — accompanied by a police guard, given the numerous assassination threats that he has received ahead of Georgia's elections this month.

No photographs of the skulls have been published, and it is simply assumed they are the remains of Homo erectus, as this s the only known species of early humans that then existed.

It is expected the Georgian authorities will permit them to be taken to Mainz for restoration and conservation.