"It is the oldest human fossil yet found in Western Europe," said co-author Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, director of Spain's National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos. Dr Bermudez de Castrosaid that the latest find had anatomical features linking it to earlier hominins (modern humans, their ancestors and relatives since divergence from apes) discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia - at the gates of Europe. The Georgian hominins lived some 1.7 million years ago and represent an early expansion of humans outside Africa. The researchers therefore suggest that Western Europe was settled by a population of hominins coming from the east. Once these early people had "won the West" they evolved into a distinct species - Homo antecessor, or "Pioneer Man", say the scientists.
The scientists now plan to investigate whether Pioneer Man might have been ancestral to Neanderthals and to even our own species Homo sapiens. "In terms of European prehistory, this [find] is very significant," said Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at London's Natural History Museum. "The earliest hominins outside Africa are those from Dmanisi in Georgia. After that, we have occupations in Europe, but the ages are not very precise. They are also without hominin [remains]," said Dr Marina Mosquera, a co-author from the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain.
The Spanish researchers used three different techniques to date the new fossils: palaeomagnetism, cosmogenic nuclide dating and biostratigraphy. "What we have are the European descendents of the first migration out of Africa," said Dr Mosquera. Professor Stringer said that until more material was discovered from Atapuerca, he was cautious about assigning the new specimen to the species Homo antecessor. But he added: "However the specimen is classified, when combined with the emerging archaeological evidence, it suggests that southern Europe began to be colonised from western Asia not long after humans had emerged from Africa - something which many of us would have doubted even five years ago.It gives us confidence that Europe was not left out of the picture of the spread of early humans. Early humans got to Java and China by 1.5 million years ago and certainly some of the animal remains found at those Asian sites are found in Western Europe too."