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Human Evolution at the Crossroads

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - CROSSROADS (Human Evolution at the Crossroads)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-09-30

Among the most important research questions in European paleoanthropology are the timing, number and origin of early human dispersals into (and out of) the continent; the identity and number of hominin species; and their possible interactions, including cultural or biological exchanges. These questions remain open in large part because of the scarcity of paleoanthropological research in South-East Europe, a region located at the crossroads between continents, and therefore a long hypothesized dispersal route. The region is thought to have also acted as a glacial refugium for fauna, flora and possibly human populations, and may have fostered late survival of archaic hominin species and therefore increased likelihood of interactions with newly arrived populations and/or species. New evidence from this region can therefore contribute substantially to our knowledge about human evolution and modern human origins, and ultimately help answer some of the fundamental questions of humanity: 'where did we come from and how did we get here?'

CROSSROADS is an ambitious, groundbreaking research program that builds on the foundation of the PI's previous research to further promote paleoanthropological research in Greece and neighboring countries. It focuses on the early part of the Paleolithic and focuses on four broadly defined goals: 1. the development of an overarching chronological framework for paleolithic and paleoanthropological evidence in Greece; 2. the development of a paleoenvironmental framework for the Pleistocene of Greece, within which changes in the fossil and archaeological record can be interpreted; 3. the identification of new evidence; and 4. the (re-) interpretation of existing fossil human remains using state of the art approaches.

CROSSROADS is conducted in close collaboration with partners in Greece, including the Ephoreia of Paleoanthropology and Speleology, Greek Ministry of Culture, the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and internationally.
The CROSSROADS team has so far collected samples for dating from several paleolithic / paleoanthropological / paleontological sites from diverse regions in Greece. Some of the results have already appeared in international peer reviewed publications, while others are pending. We have also collected samples for multi-proxy paleoenvironmental reconstruction, with some results already published, but much more in preparation. A new survey in the Megalopolis basin, conducted by the Ephoreia of Paleoanthropology and Speleology and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, under the direction of E. Panagopoulou, P. Karkanas and K. Harvati, is underway, as is a new survey in the Mygdonia basin, conducted by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and directed by K. Kotsakis, with the collaboration of K. Harvati and the CROSSROADS team. Finally, we have also made significant progress with the state of the art analysis of the existing human fossil record of the region, notably with the virtual reconstruction and analysis of the Apidima fossil crania, published in July 2019 in Nature and widely reported in the international media. Furthermore, we have developed new techniques and approaches for the interpretation of the fossil human remains, which will be applied to the Greek fossil record in the next phase.
The progress made so far has followed or exceeded expectations. Among the results beyond the state of the art was the development of a method to analyze trauma frequencies in human fossil assemblages, which showed that Neanderthals do not exhibit higher trauma frequencies than early modern humans, contrary to long held assumptions. This article was published in Nature (Beier et al. 2018). Furthermore, we developed a new approach to reconstruct habitual activity in the past, which as a first step we applied to Neanderthal and early modern human remains. Results showed that Neanderthals did not rely on brute force for their everyday activities, as previously assumed, but habitually performed precision hand movements, something previously thought to only characterize modern humans. This article was published in Science Advances (Karakostis et al. 2018). Both of these approaches will be applied to the existing human fossil record from Greece in the next phase of the project. Finally, we applied cutting edge virtual anthropology and 3-d geometric morphometric methods to virtually reconstruct and analyze the two human fossil crania from Apidima, Southern Greece, and to date them directly. Results showed that Apidima 2 was a Neanderthal dating to ca. 170 thousand years ago, as expected. However, Apidima 1 was an early modern human, dating to ca. 210 thousand years ago, making it the earliest H. sapiens currently known in Eurasia. This result was completely unexpected, and, for the first time showed that early H. sapiens dispersed earlier than previously thought, reaching much further geographically than previously suspected.

Expected results until the end of the project include the completion of the chronological work undertaken, as well as that of the multi-proxy paleoenvironmental reconstructions. Further analyses will be conducted on the Apidima remains, and on other known human fossil specimens from the region. Finally, first results from the two surveys will be published.