Fossilized Finger Bone Points to Earlier Human Migration Out of Africa

Excavating at Al Wusta
Excavating at Al Wusta

10 April, 2018

A project led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has discovered a fossilized finger bone of an early modern human in the Nefud Desert of Saudi Arabia, dating to approximately 90,000 years ago.

Although some say it's hard to identify our species, Homo sapiens, by a single bone, the findings appear unimpeachable, says John Shea, an anthropologist at the State University of NY in Stony Brook who studies human origins, but wasn't involved in the study.

The bone is the oldest fossil of Homo Sapiens species to ever be found outside of Africa and the Levant or the present Middle-East. Hundreds of animal fossils were found at the site, including those belonging to hippopotamus, as well as plenty of stone tools made by humans.

An worldwide research team, including Oxford University scientists and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, has been scouring the region's ancient lake beds for signs of what life was like tens of thousands of years ago.

85,000 years ago, the Al Wusta site was rich grassland covered by permanent freshwater lakes, as Arabia's climate was wetter than it is now.

"It really challenges that idea that humans only left 60,000 years ago", he said.

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Writing in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the team describe how the finger bone was discovered in northern Arabia in 2016 at a site called Al Wusta in the Nefud desert, with a collection of 380 stone tools nearby suggesting groups of tens of humans would have been living at the site. Dozens of sharpened stone tools buried in the sediment hinted that it might be a special place. The analysis showed that that bone was about 87,600 years old, give or take 2,500 years.

"This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonised an expansive region of south-west Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant", said Dr Groucutt. It's 3.2 centimeters long and was probably was part of a middle finger.

That all changed with the discovery of the Al Wusta finger bone. It is the second bone in from the fingertip, but it's not clear which finger. Professional anatomists analyzed 3D scans of the bone and concluded that it was a match for our own species, rather than another early hominins such as Neandertals or a member of Australopithecus. Researchers bored a microscopic hole into it with a laser and measured traces of radioactive elements within. The team estimates the bone is at least 85,000 years old.

Until recently, evidence including genetic studies suggested that Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and into Eurasia in a single, rapid wave about 60,000 years ago.

These finds, including 80,000-year-old human teeth in Asia and 65,000-year-old human relics from Australia, show a single migration out of Africa was unlikely, and that a wider dispersal into multiple areas was more likely, The New York Times reported.

Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, agrees, noting there's so much anatomical overlap between hominin species that she'd like to see additional fossils confirm it. If ancient humans could leave one environment for the other, they must have been quite adaptable, the researchers said. They also raise questions about how long these early migrants' descendants lived on.

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