400,000-Year-Old Cranium Fossil Raises New Evolution Questions

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a large international research team directed by Portuguese archaeologist João Zilhão has just discovered the oldest human cranium fossil. The discovery is an important contribution to our understanding of human evolution and the origin of the Neanderthals.

The cranium, discovered in Portugal, is the westernmost human fossil ever found in Europe during the middle Pleistocene epoch. It is also one of the earliest on the continent to be associated with the Acheulean stone tool industry. Unlike similar discoveries, this cranium is well-dated to 400,000 years ago and appears related to many handaxes also found in the area.

“This is an interesting new fossil discovery from the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for understanding the origin and evolution of the Neanderthals,” Rolf Quam, one of the study’s co-authors, commented. “The Aroeira cranium is the oldest human fossil ever found in Portugal and shares some features with other fossils from this same time period in Spain, France, and Italy. The Aroeria cranium increases the anatomical diversity in the human fossil record from this time period, suggesting different populations showed somewhat different combinations of features.”

The individual cranium exhibited traits similar to Neanderthals and some that are closer to Homo erectus. This isn’t the first fossil to show a combination of traits that complicate the story of our ancestry.

Because the sediments containing the cranium were firmly cemented, the cranium was removed from the site in a large, solid block. It was then transported to a paleoanthropology research center in Madrid for preparation and extraction—a process that took two years.

“This study truly represents an international scientific collaboration, and I feel fortunate to be involved in this research,” Quam said of the discovery.

The discovery was an even larger accomplishment for Zilhão, who has been working in the area for decades.

“I have been studying these sites for the last 30 years and we have recovered much important, archaeological data, but the discovery of a human cranium of this antiquity and importance is always a very special moment,” he noted.

Sources: Phys.org, Nature World News