Ancient Human Fossil Finger Discovery Points to Earlier Eurasian Migration

Ancient Human Fossil Finger Discovery Points to Earlier Eurasian Migration

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Huw Groucutt /The Conversation

The Arabian Peninsula is a vast landmass at the crossroads of Africa and Eurasia. In the last few years the team I work with have made many remarkable discoveries in Saudi Arabia, but one thing was always missing: fossils of ancient humans.

This changed when we discovered a small bone with big implications in Saudi Arabia’s Nefud Desert two years ago. As my colleagues and I explain in a new paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, this 90,000-year-old Homo sapiens finger bone fossil shows human migration into Eurasia occurred earlier than previously thought. And it also highlights the role of climate change in our early expansions.

For the past several years I have been conducting research in Saudi Arabia, as a co-investigator and field director of the international Palaeodeserts Project . In 2014, we discovered the site of Al Wusta, close to another established archaeological site in the north-west of the country, and began serious research there in 2016.

Where the finger was found. ( Julien Louys/Michael Petraglia/Palaeodeserts Project )

We very soon found hundreds of animal fossils and human-made stone tools. Then we found a small fossil, one of the best preserved from the site. It had the characteristic shape of a part of a human finger bone, but could it really be that after so many years of looking, we had finally found an ancient human fossil?

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We used a technique called uranium series dating to determine that the finger bone was 90,000-years-old. This involved measuring how much of the tiny amount of uranium naturally found in the fossil had decayed into radioactive thorium and working out how long this must have taken.

The next challenge was identifying the species to which the fossil belonged. Was it a human or was it a Neanderthal, the only other hominin known in south-west Asia in this time period? It turns out that the finger bone belonged to our own species, Homo sapiens .

The part of the finger bone we had found, the middle section or “intermediate phalanx”, is very different in humans and Neanderthals. In basic terms, ours are longer and thinner while Neanderthals’ are shorter and squatter . We also CT-scanned the Al Wusta fossil to produce a 3D computer model. We then used a technique called geometric morphometrics to compare the fine details of the fossil’s shape with the same part from many humans, extinct hominins and non-human primates to confirm it really was from an ancient human.

Morphological comparisons of pollical distal phalanges in African apes, extant humans and selected hominins. (2010 Almécija et al./ CC BY 3.0 ) The main features related to human-like precision grasping are indicated in the middle row, whereas the palmarly protruding insertion for the flexor pollicis longus has been further signaled in lateral view (red arrows in the lower row). Although with several morphological differences, all the features related to refined manipulation in modern humans are already present in the late Miocene Orrorin.

This finger wasn’t just an interesting find in its own right. It could also help change our understanding of when humanity first spread out from its earliest homes. According to the old textbook view , our species evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Despite a brief, failed expansion to the edge of Eurasia about 100,000 years ago when humans first tried migrating to the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean (the Levant), we only successfully spread out of Africa around 60,000 to 50,000 years ago.

Recent evidence suggests that much of this narrative is wrong. Findings in Africa, such as from the site of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, suggest that Homo sapiens appeared early, more than 300,000 years ago. Our origin does not seem to have occurred in only one small area, but across much of Africa.

Irhoud 1, approx. 160,000 yrs old, Smithsonian Natural History Museum. (Ryan Somma/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Findings from the Levant, most recently the dating of a maxilla (upper jawbone) from Misliya Cave in Israel, suggest our species repeatedly expanded into the winter-rainfall fed, forested area just outside Africa. We don’t yet know if people survived long term in the Levant, which is a very small area. It seems more likely that there were repeated migrations from Africa.

The 177,000 to 194,000-year-old maxilla (upper jaw) of Misliya-1 hominin ( Rolf Quam )

But what about the areas beyond the Levant? Recent findings suggest that our species got to East Asia and Australia much earlier than had been thought. But determining the hominin species present and the age of these sites have proven challenging.

Our finger fossil gives us a more specific time range to work with, which correlates with other evidence. Stone tools from Al Wusta are similar to those from the Middle Palaeolithic (Stone Age) period in the Levant and north-east Africa. They suggest that our early spread into Eurasia was not associated with some kind of technological breakthrough, such as the invention of projectile technology as some have suggested .

Together, these findings show that Homo sapiens had spread beyond the Levant much earlier than traditional accounts would have it. The Al Wusta phalanx is the oldest directly dated fossil of our species beyond Africa and the Levant and so represents a crucial reference point in understanding this topic.

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Hundreds of tools and animal bones were found but only one human fossil. ( Klint Janulis/Michael Petraglia/Palaeodeserts Project )

The challenge for the future is working out what became of the population to which the Al Wusta human belonged. The Al Wusta human lived in a very different landscape from the current desert in which it was found. The kinds of animal fossils and features of the sediments show that the site was once a freshwater lake in a grassland environment.

How did these ancient humans respond to the dramatic environmental change which dried out lakes such as that at Al Wusta? How did they relate to other populations? A single discipline alone – be it archaeology, genetics or palaeontology – can’t robustly explain the evolution and spread of our species. But by working together, I am confident that we can make major inroads into understanding our origins over the coming years.

New Type of Human Discovered via Single Pinky Finger

Siberian fossil points to unknown migration out of Africa.

A new type of prehistoric human has been discovered via DNA from a child's pinky finger found in a central Asian cave, a new study says.

"We had no inkling that this thing existed, and suddenly it's there. That in itself is a remarkable discovery," said Terry Brown, a geneticist at the University of Manchester in the U.K. and co-author of a news article released alongside the study Wednesday by the journal Nature.

If confirmed by further genetic testing, the discovery—dubbed X-woman—will mark the first time that a new human species has been identified solely on the basis of DNA (quick genetics overview).

The 40,000-year-old specimen isn't good for much else—it's far too fragmentary to contain clues to the creature's skeletal structure, musculature, brainpower, or appearance, researchers say.

New Human Species: Out of Africa, Quietly

The new-human discovery implies that there was a wave of human migration out of Africa, the birthplace of humanity, that was completely unknown to science.

"We think Homo erectus"—an upright-walking but small-brained early human, or hominid—"was the first [hominid] to leave Africa two million years ago," Brown explained. After that the record went blank until about 500,000 years ago, until now.

"This hominid seems to have left about a million years ago, so it fills in a bit of a gap," he said.

The fossilized pinky bone was discovered in a cave called Denisova in the Altay Mountains of southern Siberia, Russia.

Though the pinky's owner has been dubbed X-woman, scientists think the pinky belonged to a child between 5 and 7 years old, but experts can't tell if it was a boy or a girl.

Analysis of DNA extracted from the fossil reveals it is significantly different from the DNA of Neanderthals or of modern humans.

So far only mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, has been extracted. Inherited from the mother, mtDNA contains much less information than nuclear DNA, which contains most of a body's genetic information.

What mtDNA lacks in storage capacity, however, it makes up in volume. There are two copies of nuclear DNA per cell but several thousand copies of mtDNA.

For this reason, the mtDNA of the child was much easier to read, or sequence, explained Richard Green, an ancient-DNA expert at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

A study of the child's mtDNA suggests the hominid belonged to a species that last shared a common ancestor with Neanderthals and modern humans about a million years ago. (See a photo of the first model of a Neanderthal based in part on ancient DNA evidence.)

"We don't know if the three species lived at the same place at the same time," Manchester's Brown said. "One million years is a long time, and populations of these hominids were not huge, so they could have been in different parts of Europe and Asia."

Truly a New Human Species?

X-woman appears to be a new type of human, but is it truly a new species?

Among the criteria used to determine whether different animals are distinct species are inability to interbreed, genetic dissimilarity, and anatomical variation.

It's impossible to determine whether any of these criteria apply to the Denisova child based solely on mtDNA.

For this reason, study co-leaders Johannes Krause and Svante Pääbo, also of the Max Planck Institute, are planning to harvest nuclear DNA from the fossil for analysis—a painstaking process. Until then they're refusing to call X-woman a new species.

Green, who did not participate in the research, calls the team's caution "appropriate."

Because so little bone was actually discovered, scientists have no idea what the child looked like. (See "Face of Ancient Human Drawn From Hair's DNA.")

It may be possible to one day to reconstruct the Denisova child's features from its DNA, but that's a long way in the future, Green said.

Early Humans Slept Around with More than Just Neanderthals

It’s been known for some time that our modern human ancestors interbred with other early hominin groups like the Neanderthals. But it turns out they were even more promiscuous than we thought.

New DNA research has unexpectedly revealed that modern humans (Homo sapiens) mixed, mingled and mated with another archaic human species, the Denisovans, not once but twice—in two different regions of the ancient world.

All we know about the mysterious Denisovans comes from a single set of human fossils found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. In 2008, scientists first discovered a bone from a pinky finger in the cave, and concluded it belonged to a previously unknown ancient hominin who lived between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. They called the species the Denisovans (pronounced �-NEE-soh-vens”) after the cave where the fossilized finger was found.

A Neanderthal skull and some of the Mousterian tools used by the Neanderthals are shown in this display during a tour of the 𠆊ncestors’ exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History 412 (Photo by Getty)

After the genome of the finger’s owner, a young girl, was published in 2010, researchers went on to discover traces of the Denisovan ancestry in two groups of modern-day humans. Some Melanesians (who live in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands) were found to have around 5 percent of Denisovan ancestry, while some East and South Asians have around 0.2 percent. One particular gene mutation, which the Denisovans are thought to have passed to modern Tibetans, allows them to survive at high altitudes.

Researchers assumed the Denisovan ancestry found in Asia was due to migration from Oceania, the larger region containing Melanesia. But recently, scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle stumbled on something surprising: evidence for a second, distinct instance of humans getting hot and heavy with Denisovans.

In their analysis of more than 5,600 whole-genome sequences from individuals from Europe, Asia, the Americas and Oceania, the research team looked for ancient DNA, which stands out due to the larger number of mutations that have developed over hundreds of thousands of years. When they found the ancient genetic information, they compared with Denisovan DNA and Neanderthal DNA to determine its origin.

VIDEO: Neanderthals: Did Cro Magnons, the ancestors of early humans, cause the Neanderthal extinction?

What they found was a distinct set of Denisovan ancestry among some modern East Asians—particularly Han Chinese, Chinese Dai and Japanese𠅊ncestry not found in South Asians or Papuans. According to the study’s findings, published in the journal Cell this week, this Denisovan DNA is actually more closely related to the sample taken from the girl in the Siberian cave.

𠇊lthough the Papuans ended up with more Denisovan ancestry, it turns out to be less similar to the sequenced Denisovan,” Sharon Browning, a research professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington School of Public Health and senior author of the study, told New Scientist. “Our research demonstrates that there were at least two distinct populations of Denisovans living in Asia, probably somewhat geographically distant.”

(Credit Browning et al.Cell)

Browning and her colleagues assume that modern humans mixed with the Denisovans shortly after migrating out of Africa, around 50,000 years ago. While they’re not sure of the location, they believe the interbreeding occurred in at least two places: eastern Asia, and further south, in Indonesia or Australia.

While the new study confirms that modern humans interbred at least three times with ancient hominins—once with Neanderthals, and twice with the Denisovans—it also raises the possibility of even more extensive intermixing on the part of our ancient ancestors. As reported in New Scientist, one-quarter of the ancient DNA that the researchers found in living humans didn’t match up with either Denisovan or Neanderthal DNA, suggesting there may be other mystery mates out there to find.

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National Museum of Natural History

Some of the most exciting discoveries in human evolution happened in the last decade. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution)

Human evolution is one of the most vibrant areas of scientific investigation. In the past decade we’ve seen many discoveries that add to our understanding of our origins. To mark the 10th anniversary of the Smithsonian’s “David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins,” here are some of the biggest discoveries in human evolution from the last 10 years.

We have ancient DNA

Scientists extracted ancient DNA from this 76,000-52,000-year-old fossil pinky bone in 2010, leading to the identification of the Denisovan population. (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

DNA tells us a lot about who we are now. But we also look to ancient DNA to learn about our origins.

When the decade first started, scientists recovered ancient genetic material from a fossilized finger bone found in the Denisova Cave in Siberia. They tested that material and discovered that the DNA didn’t match that of modern humans or Neanderthals. Instead, it belonged to a previously undiscovered species of early humans now called Denisovans. It was the first time a new species has been identified using ancient DNA.

What does this tell us? The human genome is a wondrous archive of our relationships with ancient species no longer around.

Meet our new ancestors

737 fossils of Homo naledi, a new early human species announced in 2015. (Image by John Hawks/Courtesy of University of the Witwatersrand)

Over the past decade, we welcomed four new species to our family tree, including the mysterious Homo naledi.

In 2015, scientists announced the discovery of fossils of at least 15 individuals of this species in a deep, dark chamber of the Rising Star Cave system in South Africa. It's five years later and we still aren’t sure how they got there. There’s no evidence they were dragged there by predators or washed in by water. And no other animal bones were found in the cave except for the bones of a single owl. Were the bodies placed there deliberately? If so, by whom? It’s a mystery still to be solved.

What we do know is that the remains are from 335,000-236,000 years ago and show a unique mix of ancient and human traits, making Homo naledi one of several species that overlapped in time with our own.

Fossil discoveries tell more of our story

This 3.8-million-year-old cranium of Australopithecus anamensis helped scientists see how the face of an early human species looked. (Photograph by Dale Omori, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

Not all fossil discoveries lead to a new species. But new fossils always reveal more of our story.

In the past ten years, we’ve found fossils that widen both the geographic and time range of several early human species. But one of the most exciting discoveries is of a nearly complete 3.8-million-year-old cranium of Australopithecus anamensis from Woronso-Mille, Ethiopia. Until this find was announced in 2019, researchers had only found bits and pieces of this species from various sites across Ethiopia and Kenya.

Fossils older than 3.5 million years are extremely rare. But what makes this discovery particularly amazing is that it challenges the previous assumption that A. anamensis was the direct ancestor of the species Australopithecus afarensis—to which the famous fossil “Lucy” belongs. Thanks to this skull, we now know that the two species overlapped in time.

We made tools earlier than we thought

A 3.3-million-year-old stone tool in situ at the Lomekwi 3 excavation site in Kenya. (Mission Préhistorique au Kenya/West Turkana Archaeological Project)

When you think of technology today, you might picture computers, smartphones, and gaming consoles. But for our ancestors millions of years ago, it would have been stone tools.

We long thought our ancestors began making these tools about 2.6 million years ago. But a discovery announced in 2015 pushed that date back. The research team found pieces of altered stone in Lomekwi, Kenya, that date to 3.3 million years ago. These stones are larger and simpler than those that were previously thought to be the oldest stone tools.

The new discovery suggests that the ability to flake stone tools arose at least 700,000 years before it became a regular habit in the lives of our ancestors.

We’re older than we thought

Reconstructions of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils based on CT scans of multiple original fossils. (Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Stone tools aren’t the only things that are older than we thought. Humans are too.

Just three years ago, a team of scientists made a discovery that pushed back the origin of our species, Homo sapiens. The team re-excavated a cave in Morocco where a group of miners found skulls in 1961. They collected sediments and more fossils to help them identify and date the remains. Using CT scans, the scientists confirmed that the remains belonged to our species. They also used modern dating techniques on the remains. To their surprise, the remains dated to about 300,000 years ago, which means that our species originated 100,000 years earlier than we thought.

Social Networking Isn’t New

Obsidian from Olorgesailie, Kenya revealed that social networks existed long before we thought. (Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution)

With platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it hard to imagine social networking being old. But it is. And, now, it’s even older than we thought.

In 2018, scientists discovered that social networks were used to trade obsidian, valuable for its sharp edges, by around 300,000 years ago. After excavating and analyzing stone tools from southern Kenya, the team found that the stones chemically matched to obsidian sources in multiple directions of up to 55 miles away. The findings show how early humans related to and kept track of a larger social world.

We left Africa earlier than we thought

2.1-million-year-old stone tools from the site of Shangchen on the Loess Plateau of central China. (Zhu Zhaoyu, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

We’ve long known that early humans migrated from Africa not once but at least twice. But we didn’t know just how early those migrations happened.

We thought Homo erectus spread beyond Africa as far as eastern Asia by about 1.7 million years ago. But, in 2018, scientists dated new stone tools and fossils from China to about 2.1 million years ago, pushing the Homo erectus migration to Asia back by 400,000 years.

Also in 2018, researchers announced the discovery of an upper jaw in Israel that looked like that of our own species, Homo sapiens. The jaw ended up being 174,000-185,000 years old. This discovery—along with others from China and Greece—suggest that Homo sapiens wandered short-term into Eurasia well before the worldwide migration that began 70,000 years ago.

Briana Pobiner leads the National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Program’s education and outreach efforts and manages the Human Origins Program's public programs. Her research centers on the evolution of human diet (with a focus on meat-eating), but has included topics as diverse as human cannibalism and chimpanzee carnivory. Her favorite field moments include falling asleep in a tent in the Serengeti in Tanzania while listening to the distant whoops of hyenas, watching a pride of lions eat a zebra carcass on the Kenyan equator, and discovering fossil bones that were last touched, butchered and eaten by one of her 1.5-million-year-old ancestors.

Paleoanthropologist Dr. Rick Potts heads the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In partnership with the Kenya Museums, Potts leads ongoing excavations in southern and western Kenya. His research focuses on how environmental instability has affected human evolution and our evolutionary adaptations. He is the curator of the Smithsonian’s "Hall of Human Origins" and the traveling exhibit “Exploring Human Origins.” He also authored the exhibit companion book What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Fossil Finger DNA Points to New Type of Human

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To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

Continued study of an approximately 40,000 year old finger bone from Siberia has identified a previously unknown type of human -- one that may have interbred with the ancestors of modern-day Melanesian people.

The fossil scrap -- just the tip of a juvenile female's finger -- was discovered in 2008 during excavations of Denisova cave in Siberia's Altai Mountains. Anatomically, it looks like it could have belonged to a Neanderthal or a modern human. But, in an initial announcement published in April in Nature, a team of scientists led by geneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology concluded the bone belonged to a distinct population of humans that last shared a common ancestor with Neanderthals and our species about a million years ago.

The new study, published by Pääbo and colleagues Dec. 22 in Nature, provides further evidence that Denisova cave was home to unique humans. The researchers analyzed genetic sequences recovered from the nuclei of cells, which offer better resolution of relationships than the mitochondrial samples used in the previous research. The Denisova DNA sequences were closest to the Neanderthals, indicating they shared a more recent common ancestor with Neanderthals than with us.

The new genetic data suggests the ancestors of the Neanderthals and Denisovans left Africa between 300,000 to 400,000 years ago and rapidly diverged. But this estimate is based on models of the rates that genes typically mutate and could be off the mark.

"The Neanderthal and Denisova population history may be roughly twice the length suggested in [the Nature] paper," said University of Wisconsin -- Madison anthropologist John Hawks, who was not involved with this study. "The ancestors [of the Denisovans] might be the original "Homo erectus" dispersal from Africa."

The big question, however, is whether the Denisovans are a new species of human.

They were genetically distinct from other humans, and an upper molar tooth (above) found at the same excavation hints that these people were similar to earlier species like Homo erectus.

But this is not enough to declare a new species, especially since the same team of researchers recently found that Neanderthals likely interbred with populations of our species that moved outside Africa. Between 1 and 4 percent of the genes of non-Africans match those found in Neanderthals, making it difficult to draw the species line.

An unexpected discovery about the Denisovans further complicates the picture: Some modern-day people carry Denisovan genes. Through genetic comparisons Pääbo’s team found that some people from Melanesia -- an assemblage of islands off Australia's east coast, including New Guinea -- share 4 to 6 percent of their genomes with the Denisovans. This probably indicates that the Denisovans interbred with anatomically modern humans despite the split between our lineages over a million years ago.

The authors of the new paper didn't go as far as calling the Denisovans a new species, and "on a biological species concept," says Hawks, "there's really no reason to regard this as a different species."

Images: 1) The molar from the Denisova cave, as seen from above and the side. Credit: David Reich et al., Nature**. 2) A map of human migrations. The triangles and circles represent sampling locations of Neanderthal remains of present-day human genomes, respectively. The blue arrows trace major migration routes of anatomically modern humans out of Africa. The yellow box and star denote the correspondence between the Denisova DNA samples and the genomes of people from Melanesia. From Bustamante & Henn, Nature.

List of human evolution fossils

The following tables give an overview of notable finds of hominin fossils and remains relating to human evolution, beginning with the formation of the tribe Hominini (the divergence of the human and chimpanzee lineages) in the late Miocene, roughly 7 to 8 million years ago.

As there are thousands of fossils, mostly fragmentary, often consisting of single bones or isolated teeth with complete skulls and skeletons rare, this overview is not complete, but show some of the most important findings. The fossils are arranged by approximate age as determined by radiometric dating and/or incremental dating and the species name represents current consensus if there is no clear scientific consensus the other possible classifications are indicated.

The early fossils shown are not considered ancestors to Homo sapiens but are closely related to ancestors and are therefore important to the study of the lineage. After 1.5 million years ago (extinction of Paranthropus), all fossils shown are human (genus Homo). After 11,500 years ago (11.5 ka, beginning of the Holocene), all fossils shown are Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans), illustrating recent divergence in the formation of modern human sub-populations.

88,000-Year-Old Middle Finger Discovery Could Change Early Human History

What makes this finger so special? As the oldest directly dated human fossil outside of Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean Levant, its discovery means that early migration into Eurasia was much more successful than previously thought. The new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution gives details of the fossil's discovery in Al Wusta, a former freshwater lake now located in the desert of northern Saudi Arabia. Along with the middle finger bone, researchers found the fossils of freshwater snails and hippopotamus, demonstrating the variety of life that flourished in what is now the arid desert.

Measuring just 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) long, the fossil was scanned and compared with known finger bones, both of Homo sapiens as well as early primates and Neanderthals. The results were undeniable&mdashthe researchers had dug up a human finger fossil. Next, using a technique called uranium-series dating, the fossil was shown to be 88,000 years old, with other dates of associated sediments and animals placing it around 90,000 years ago. Interestingly, environmental analysis showed that the area had once been an ancient grassland.

To put the timeline in perspective, it's believed that humans first left Africa around 130,000 years ago, moving into the Levant, as evidenced by fossils found in Israeli caves. It was believed that a second major migration out of the Levant happened around 60,000 years ago, but this single finger proves that what scientists thought to be true, might be incorrect.

“This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonized an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant,” shared Dr. Huw Groucutt of the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “The ability of these early people to widely colonize this region casts doubt on long held views that early dispersals out of Africa were localized and unsuccessful.”

Professor Michael Petraglia, project leader from the Max Planck Institute, hopes that this is just the beginning of other discoveries as research in Al Wusta continues. “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.”

Fossil finger points to new understanding of earliest human migration

The discovery of an 88,000-year-old fossilised human finger in Saudi Arabia is rewriting the history of the first human migration out of Africa.

University of Queensland Palaeontologist Dr Gilbert Price said the finger was the oldest Homo sapiens fossil ever found in Saudi Arabia, and dated back to a time when the region was much wetter than it is today.

&ldquoThe discovery is the oldest directly dated Homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa and the Levant, and indicates that early dispersals into Eurasia were more expansive than previously thought,&rdquo he said.

Dr Price is part of an international research project, headed by Germany&rsquos Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, that discovered the fossilised finger bone at Al Wusta, an ancient fresh-water lake in what is now the Nefud Desert.

&ldquoThese ancient humans lived alongside animals that seem more at home around the modern wetlands of Equatorial Africa, such as hippos, water buffalo, and antelopes,&rdquo he said.

&ldquoThere was certainly no shortage of food and water for these ancient people &ndash a stark contrast to the vast, dry and empty desert of today.&rdquo

The finding shows there were multiple dispersals out of Africa, and they had spread further than previously known.

&ldquoThe climatic shifts that the earliest members of our species must have faced shows just how tough and resilient they were,&rdquo Dr Price said.

&ldquoA massive swing towards arid climates drove major extinctions of the wetland animals, as well as many of the grassland species, forever changing the landscape and environments for humans in the Arabian Peninsula.&rdquo

The 3.2cm fossilised finger bone is the first ancient human fossil found in Arabia. It has been uranium series-dated at 88,000 years.

The research, in partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, involved the Saudi Geological Survey, King Saud University, the University of Oxford and other key United Kingdom and Australian institutions including Brisbane's Griffith University.

It is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution (doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0518-2)

Ancient Human Fossil Finger Discovery Points to Earlier Eurasian Migration - History

Ian Cartwright Up close view of the human fossil finger bone remains found in Saudi Arabia.

A fossilized human finger bone that’s 85,000 to 90,000 years old was found in the Nefud Desert of Saudi Arabia, as revealed in a new study published on April 9 in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The fossil finger is 1.3-inches-long. To put things in perspective, the Nefud Desert is 40,000 square miles. To find a single human finger bone in this massive area is crazy enough. But this particular one just happens to also be the oldest human fossil unearthed outside of Africa as well as the oldest human remains found in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? Almost all bones will not be preserved, and there’s nothing special about the finger bone in terms of how hard it is. It just got lucky,” said Huw Groucutt, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study.

Before this discovery, it was the belief of many scientists that humans first left Africa 60,000 years ago, and that when did they did leave, they stayed along the coastline. The idea that they actually left 25,000 years earlier and made it to the Arabian desert is a radical shift in the view of human history.

This new finding is the latest in a series of developments that are helping to put the pieces of humans’ departure from Africa together. What was once thought to be a single and quick migration is proving to be a much messier, intricate scenario, based on the theory that humans actual left Africa in several waves. The new research also shows that our ancient ancestors traveled to a much broader range of destinations.

The timeframe of the human departure date in Africa has long been a major debate in the science community. Many say that there isn’t any reliable evidence to support the idea that a mass migration out of the African subcontinent happened any earlier than 60,000 years ago.

The fossil was first found in 2016, amongst fossils from hippos and snails as well as stone tools at the Al Wusta site of the Arabian Desert. Just by eyeing it, the researchers believed it belonged to a homo sapien, whose fingers are distinctively long and thin compared to those of Neanderthals. They did a micro-CT scan and compared it to other animals with human-like fingers before confirming that it was human and most likely the middle part of an adult’s middle finger.

“All of these studies agreed that the fossil belonged to Homo sapiens. The shape of Homo sapiens finger bones is just quite distinct compared to other species,” Said Groucutt.

Small as it may be in size, this finger fragment may be a massive revelation in the human history timeline.


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