Single Bone Points Finger at Early Homo sapiens Migration

By | April 10th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Homo sapiens Spread Further Than Previously Thought – More Evidence

A single finger bone, measuring just 3.3 centimetres in length, indicates that modern humans were living in Saudi Arabia around 88,000 years ago.  The ancient digit, is the oldest human (H. sapiens), fossil to have been found to date outside of the cradle of humanity (Africa).  Its discovery suggests that early, modern humans travelled further than initially thought during the first reported human migration into Eurasia.  This fossil discovery adds to the evidence from Israel, China and Australia that Homo sapiens was widely dispersed outside of Africa as early as 180,000 years ago.

Views of the Ancient Human Finger Bone

Ancient human finger bone from Saudi Arabia.

Various views of the fossil intermediate phalanx from Saudi Arabia.

Picture Credit: Ian Cartwright

Excavating an Ancient Freshwater Lake Bed

Writing in the academic journal “Nature Ecology and Evolution”, the international team of researchers including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage and Oxford University, report on the excavations of an ancient freshwater lake bed preserved in the Nefud Desert.  Prior to this and other recent discoveries, most palaeoanthropologists believed that early migrations out of Africa into Eurasia by H. sapiens had largely been unsuccessful, with early humans only reaching the relatively nearby Mediterranean forests of the Levant.

Fieldwork at the Al Wusta Site (Saudi Arabia)

Excavating the ancient lake bed in the Nefud Desert.

The Al Wusta excavation site, in the Nefud Desert (Saudi Arabia).

Picture Credit: Michael Petraglia/Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Single Human Bone

The single human bone was subjected to CT scans to build up a three-dimensional image of the fossil.  It resembled a modern human finger bone, Neanderthal finger bones being shorter and squatter.  The fossil is described as an “intermediate phalanx”, it is the second furthest finger bone from the wrist.  In addition to the human fossil, the field team found evidence of the lush palaeoenvironment of the area including bones from a hippopotamus and the fossil shells of freshwater snails.  The scientists uncovered a large number of stone tools too.

88,000 Years Old

A dating technique called uranium series dating was used to estimate the age of the fossil.  A laser was employed to bore microscopic holes into the fossil bone and record the ratio between minute traces of radioactive elements.  Having compared the fossil to the digits of ancient hominins and primates, the scientists reported that this was conclusively a finger bone and it belonged to a member of our own species – Homo sapiens.

Lead author of the paper, Dr Huw Groucutt (Oxford University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History), stated:

“This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonised an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant.  The ability of these early people to widely colonise this region casts doubt on long held views that early dispersals out of Africa were localised and unsuccessful.”

Other dates obtained from associated fossil material and analysis of the ancient lake sediments corroborate the team’s findings.  The dates are focused on or around 90,000 years ago.  During this time the Al Wusta location looked very different than it does today.  The area was lush and green and the large lake was surrounded by a grassland ecosystem.

Co-author of the scientific paper, Professor Michael Petraglia (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History), added:

“The Arabian Peninsula has long been considered to be far from the main stage of human evolution.  This discovery firmly puts Arabia on the map as a key region for understanding our origins and expansion to the rest of the world.   As fieldwork carries on, we continue to make remarkable discoveries in Saudi Arabia.”

The Ancient Lake Bed (White) Surrounded by the Sand of the Nefud Desert

The prehistoric lake bed in the Nefud Desert.

Once this region was verdant with many lakes thanks to the monsoon rains.

Picture Credit: Michael Petraglia/Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

The scientific paper: “Homo sapiens in Arabia by 85,000 Years Ago” by Huw S. Groucutt, Rainer Grün, Michael D. Petraglia et al, published in the journal “Nature Ecology and Evolution”.