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We all have our roots in Africa. However, modern non-Africans are not the first Homo sapiens to live outside of the continent. Recently discovered fossils show that the first modern humansin Eurasia arrived at least 100,000 years before the ancestors of modern populations1.
However, it turns out that these pioneers didn’t last long. This early population ultimately died and Neanderthals seem to have replaced them.
The first Homo sapiens
Genetic evidence indicates that modern non-Africans have their roots in an out of Africa migration that happened around 60,000 years ago2. And yet, it turns out that a skull from Apidima Cave, Greece, is a modern human from 210,000 years ago1.
Two skulls were found in the cave in the 1970s. However, tough sediment and bad damage hindered analysis and dating. Fortunately, advances in computer scans and analysis were eventually able to overcome this; revealing that one of these skulls was this ancient modern human1.
This find makes the Apidima skull the oldest Homo sapiens out of Africa1. So why doesn’t the genetic data reflect that? Well, the simple explanation is that this ancient population died out and didn’t contribute much to our gene pool. Some interbreeding can’t be ruled out2, but the Apidima skull doesn’t seem to be a direct ancestor of any modern human population1.
So where did the first humans from Apidima go? The clue lies in the other skull from Apidima cave. It’s a little younger, clocking in at a measly 170,000 years old. And, crucially, it’s a Neanderthal1.
This suggests that the early modern humans ultimately died off from the area, helping explain why they didn’t give rise to any modern groups. It also raises the possibility that Neanderthals may have been to blame1.
With only two fossils to go on, it’s hard to say exactly what happened. However, it’s not implausible Neanderthals once drove modern humans out of Europe. Although we would come to dominate the continent, that wouldn’t be for another few hundred thousand years. By that time we’d developed new technology and our brain had even evolved.
But back then, the playing field was evener. And the Neanderthals had home team advantage. So it may not have been so long ago that modern humans weren’t at the top of the food chain.
Harvati, K., Röding, C., Bosman, A.M., Karakostis, F.A., Grün, R., Stringer, C., Karkanas, P., Thompson, N.C., Koutoulidis, V., Moulopoulos, L.A. and Gorgoulis, V.G., 2019. Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia. Nature, 571(7766), pp.500-504.
Groucutt, H.S., Petraglia, M.D., Bailey, G., Scerri, E.M., Parton, A., Clark‐Balzan, L., Jennings, R.P., Lewis, L., Blinkhorn, J., Drake, N.A. and Breeze, P.S., 2015. Rethinking the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 24(4), pp.149-164.