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Prehistoric World

European Skull's Evolving Story

Edited from BBC News, 16 January 2007

The earliest modern humans in Europe were short of being the complete article, according to a 2006 study of a fossilised skull from Romania.

The 35,000-year-old cranium was discovered in Pestera cu Oase, in the west of the country. It shows an interesting mix of features, according to scientists at the time. Whilst undeniably a Homo sapiens specimen, it bore some traits which are 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 highlighted the suggestion raised by the fossil that 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 between 75,000 and 60,000 years ago.

Ongoing story

The reconstructed cranium was labelled Oase 2. It was found in a Late Pleistocene bone bed containing the remains of cave bears and it 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, reported the team behind the research.

The team pointed out the possibility that the modern and archaic features could have resulted from interbreeding between H sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, who were already in Europe.

But, they added, the fossil may simply also have been a case of ancient traits reappearing in a modern human (usually held to be unlikely in any instance), 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, was of the opinion that the ultimate resolution of these issues would have to wait until more samples were found. Team member Erik Trinkaus, also of Washington University, commented that the skull, technically, was that of a modern human, but humans as we know them today have evolved considerably since then.



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