The First Europeans

Somehow, the end of the line for ancient human ancestors in Europe has long attracted more attention than the beginning, what with painstaking research as well as rampant speculation about how long Neandertals hung on in Spain and Portugal and whether they interbred with Homo sapiens. (If the latter, then modern humans have a little bit of Neandertal in them, something I find easy to believe every time I ride the subway.)

But now scientists are rewriting the beginning of that timeline, too. Teeth and a jaw bone discovered in Atapuerca, in northern Spain, they say, mean that the first direct human ancestors—of Neandertals as well as Homo sapiens (including Cro Magnon, for you Clan of the Cave Bear fans) and the rest—reached Europe 1.2 million years ago, not 800,000 years ago as had long been thought.

The first humans left their natal continent of Africa about two million years ago, walking out of the northeast corner through what is now Egypt. They turned right, anthropologists have long believed, probably because it was too cold and tough-going toward the north and west. Only later did some of the hominids leaving Africa make it to Europe—but that “later” has been vague.

With the stone tools, animal remains and human teeth and jawbone found in Spain by a team led by Eudald Carbonell of the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social in Tarragona, Spain, “later” now means 1.2 million years old. As the team reports today in the journal Nature, these first Europeans were enthusiastic carnivores; the animal bones found along with the human ones, and dated to the same 1.2 million years, show signs of a butcher’s fine hand.

Who were these pioneers? The oldest known hominid fossils in Eurasia were found in Dmanisi, Georgia, and have been dated at 1.8 million years. Paleoanthropologists believe that Homo ergaster was the species that left Africa, and that’s who—along with, perhaps, another species—settled in Dmanisi. But Carbonell and his team conclude that the Atapuerca fossils look sufficiently different to be a distinct species, and so give them the name Homo antecessor.

She—for the fossil jawbone and teeth seem to come from a female—is now the best candidate for the last common ancestor of Neandertal and modern humans, Homo sapiens.

Antecessorapparently knew how to hunt, make stone tools with sharp edges for butchering their prey, and hammer. They probably doubled back from Asia and headed west into Europe. It is possible, though, that they represent a second wave of out-of-Africa wanderers, turning left at Egypt—rugged terrain and cold climate be damned. The new date for the first Europeans means there's a lot more fossils—400,000 years worth—to be found that anthropologists dreamed of, all of them offering the possibility of revealing how the children of a little band of primitive primates that left Africa 2 million years ago came to rule the world.