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Trending Science: Could a fossil finger rewrite history?

An ancient finger bone found at a prehistoric lake site in Saudi Arabia may just change the story of modern human migration.

Fundamental Research

Until now, the science community believed that early humans migrated out of Africa to the rest of the world in a single wave about 60 000 years ago. A new study published in the journal ‘Nature Ecology and Evolution’ is here to tell us that we still have a lot to learn about when and how our ancestors left Africa. A team of researchers have dated the middle bone of an adult’s middle finger found at a site called Al Wusta in the Nefud Desert in 2016. It’s 3.2 cm long and about 90 000 years old. This finger bone happens to be the oldest fossil from Homo sapiens ever found outside Africa and the nearby Mediterranean Levant region. It’s also the first ancient human fossil from the Arabian Peninsula. Did modern humans leave Africa 60 000 years ago? The discovery shows that early human migrations may have occurred more often than previously thought. Humans moved out of Africa multiple times, 20 000 to 25 000 years earlier. They may also have ventured to regions scientists hadn’t ever suspected. “Our species first appeared in Africa roughly 300 000 years ago,” Michael Petraglia, project lead and study co-author of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, told ‘Reuters’. “Scientists previously thought Homo sapiens departed Africa in a single, rapid migration some 60 000 years ago, journeying along the coastlines and subsisting on marine resources.” Archaeologists unearthed over 800 animal fossils, including gazelle, hippopotamus and wild cattle. In addition, they uncovered 380 stone tools, suggesting hunter-gatherers lived there. Thanks to satellite imagery, what is now a desert was once grasslands with freshwater lakes. All these clues provide evidence that where there’s water and food, human presence isn’t far off. Challenging the theory of modern migration “And this find, together with other finds in the last few years, suggests ... Homo sapiens is moving out of Africa multiple times during many windows of opportunity during the last 100 000 years or so,” Petraglia added. “The big question now is what became of the ancestors of the population to which the Al Wusta human belonged,” said lead study author Huw Groucutt of the University of Oxford. “We know that shortly after they lived, the rains failed and the area dried up. Did this population die out? Did it survive further south in Arabia, where even today there are mountainous areas with quite high rainfall and coastal regions which receive monsoonal rains?” Groucutt further speculated: “Or did the drying environment mean that some of these people were ‘pushed’ further into Eurasia, as part of a worldwide colonisation?” Petraglia is excited about the prospect of exploring the Saudi Arabian Peninsula’s potential for more significant discoveries. He told the ‘National Geographic’: “Every season we have there, we make a new discovery. We have very big plans to continue this work on ancient lakes, and we’re going to expand our work into caves as well. It’s a gold mine.”


United States

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