A partial skull found in Greece is the earliest evidence of the presence of Homo sapiens outside of Africa, scientists have reported.
The team of researchers dated the skull to about 210,000 years old, which makes the skull about 150,000 years older than the oldest fossil of Homo sapiens found in Europe and the third-oldest known example of modern humanity.
A second skull found in the same location was estimated to be at least 170,000 years old belonging to Neanderthals, a species widespread in Europe until 40,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens took over.
The two skulls (named Apidima 1 and 2) were found together in the late 1970’s in the Apidima Cave which is located in the Peloponnese in southern Greece.
Initial attempts to age the skulls were inconclusive in part because the skulls were found wedged high in cave walls and may have been mixed by mudflow.
Greek researcher Katerina Harvati, Director of Paleoanthropology at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in Germany, and her colleagues found the relevant skull fragments in a museum in Athens.
Both were recognised as being human fossils of some sort, but had not been dated or properly analysed. Dr Harvati and her team have now done so, using computer reconstruction, a technique unavailable to the original finders.
The back of a skull found in the Greek cave has been dated to 200,000 years ago. Known as Apidima 1, right, researchers were able to scan and recreate it (middle and left). The rounded shape of Apidima 1 is a unique feature of modern humans and contrasts sharply with Neanderthals and their ancestors.Before this discovery, the oldest modern human fossils were an upper jaw and teeth found in an Israeli cave spreading from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula about 180,000 years ago.
The discovery reinforces the view that modern humans spread from Africa to Europe and Asia earlier than was previously believed.
“This discovery highlights the importance of Southeast Europe for human evolution,” Dr Harvati said in a statement about the research.