What the face of the oldest hominid in Europe found in Atapuerta says about our past

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Those responsible for the archaeological site of Atapuerca, in Burgos, have given the news of a new discovery in the place. These are bones belonging to the face of a human ancestor over a million years old. It may seem like just another find in an area of ​​great archaeological value, but the truth is that it can tell us a lot about the evolution of the human being.


What have they found?
It is a human fossil, belonging to the face of an ancestor who lived between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago. This implies that it would be the first known human in Europe, hundreds of thousands before the emergence of our closest “cousins” (we think), the Neanderthals. The team of researchers in charge of the site has explained that there is still work to be done to learn more about this finding.

To which species does it belong?
One of the questions to be clarified is still its species. Although it is known that it belongs to the genus Homo, it is unknown to which of the human species it belongs. It can be assumed, yes, that it is a Homo ancestor like others in Atapuerca or belongs to a closely related but earlier species. In any case, it can be ruled out that they are older species such as the H. ergaster or the H. habilis.

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The mirror of the soul… and of evolution.
Based on the physiognomy of the fossil, researchers have been able to rule out that it belongs to the oldest human species. The reason is a mysterious evolutionary step, one of the “missing links” that we can find in our evolution. In it, the face of the hominids underwent a decisive change that shaped our appearance for the next million years.

The H. antecessor is the first known human species with modern facial features, but this new fossil, pending confirmation that it is a H. predecessor or another species, is the oldest of those found to date with this characteristic. Therein lies the importance of this fossil, in how much it can say in the debate about the evolutionary model that explains how we sapiens got here.

The remains of Atapuerca.
This is not the only piece that researchers at the Burgos site have to redefine human evolution. 15 years ago, a jaw was found about two meters above where the new fossil was found. The mandible was cataloged as belonging to a “Homo sp.”, that is, an unidentified species belonging to the genus Homo. Now it’s time to determine if both findings are related.

Excavations at level TE7 of the Sima del Elefante cave site in Atapuerca. This archaeological site already rewrote human evolution 25 years ago when the discovery of the H. antecessor species was announced. This species owes its name to the fact that it is considered the ancestor of both homo sapiens and therefore modern humans as well as our close relatives, the Neanderthals, one of the species that has inhabited the European continent for the longest time.

Work to be done.
Much work remains to be done to resolve the doubts that have been raised about human evolution since the discovery of H. antecessor. Many of these answers are in the fossil itself, but others are all around it. The possibility of finding new remains remains open, but surrounding stones and sediments can also hide valuable information.

Undoubtedly, a good part of the scientific community will be attentive to what the remains of the oldest (human) inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula and all of Europe have to tell us. Human evolution still holds many secrets.

Image | María Dolors Guillén (Atapuerca research team)

Those responsible for the archaeological site of Atapuerca, in Burgos, have given the news of a new discovery in the…

Those responsible for the archaeological site of Atapuerca, in Burgos, have given the news of a new discovery in the…

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