History Files


Prehistoric World

European Skull's Evolving Story

BBC News, 16 January 2007




The earliest modern humans in Europe were short of being the complete article, according to a study of a fossilised skull from Romania.

The 35,000-year-old cranium discovered in Pestera cu Oase in the west of the country shows an interesting mix of features, say scientists.

Whilst undeniably a Homo sapiens specimen, it has some traits normally associated with more ancient species.

The skull was reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr Helene Rougier, from Washington University in St Louis, USA, and colleagues say the fossil suggests the first modern humans to enter Europe continued to evolve after they had settled.

H. sapiens is thought to have emerged in Africa more than 150,000 years ago before spreading out of the continent and arriving in Europe less than 50,000 years ago.

Ongoing story

The reconstructed cranium - known as Oase 2 and found in a Late Pleistocene bone bed containing the remains of cave bears - comes from the earliest stages of the occupation.

In addition to its large face and retreating forehead, the specimen has the largest cheek teeth so far known for an otherwise anatomically modern human, the team reports.

The scientists say the mixture of modern and archaic features could have resulted from interbreeding between H. sapiens and the older Neanderthal humans (Homo neanderthalensis) who were already in Europe.

But, they add, the fossil may simply also be a case of ancient traits reappearing in a modern human, or even an indication that science has not yet been able to study enough early modern people to fully understand their diversity.

Co-author Joao Zilhao of the University of Bristol, in England, said: "The ultimate resolution of these issues must await considerations of larger samples of European early modern humans and chronologically intervening specimens."

And team member Erik Trinkaus, also of Washington University, commented: "I think that what this find really shows is the ongoing nature of human evolution. Technically, this skull is a modern human, but humans as we know them today have evolved considerably since then."



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