Oldest evidence of early humans in Europe

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According to a new study, early humans of the Homo erectus species were already in Europe around 1.4 million years ago, which is significantly earlier than previously assumed. This is suggested by a layer of stone tools found at an excavation site in Ukraine.

The earliest evidence to date of early humans in Europe from excavation sites in Atapuerca (Spain) and the Vallonet Cave in southern France is 1.1 to 1.2 million years old. As the research team led by Roman Garba from the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague now reports in the scientific journal “Nature,” Europe may have been colonised from east to west.

The excavation site near Korolevo in Ukraine was discovered in 1974 and has been studied many times since then. “Although Korolevo’s significance for the European Palaeolithic is widely recognised, age limits for the lowest stone artefacts have yet to be conclusively clarified,” write the authors of the study. To determine the age of this layer, they used two dating methods based on rare radioactive isotopes: beryllium-10 and aluminum-26, which are produced when cosmic rays hit deposits containing quartz. The isotopes decay very slowly, and their ratio to each other can determine the age of a layer.
Stone tool from the newly dated layer
Both methods yielded an age of around 1.42 million years. An age determination of samples from the excavation site in Atapuerca, Spain, using one of the methods yielded an age of 1.12 million years.

From east to west
The stone tools found, which the researchers attribute to early humans of the Homo erectus species, are, therefore, the oldest known in Europe to date. Although early human bones around 1.8 million years old were found in Georgia, the Dmanissi site in the southern Georgian Caucasus is located just outside Europe.

The spatial and temporal sequence of the various finds gives the researchers a clear indication that early humans probably gradually made their way to Europe from east to west. It is, therefore, possible that they came from the Levant (Middle East), where two to two and a half million-year-old stone tools similar to those found in Korolewo were found in the Zarqa Valley in Jordan. The hominids could then have arrived in what is now western Ukraine, either via the Caucasus or via Asia Minor (Turkey).

Chronology open
The site near Korolevo lies close to the Tisza, a tributary of the Danube. The team suspects that a group of early humans may have migrated upstream along the Danube into Europe. However, there are still too few finds relating to early humans in Europe to establish a reliable chronology. “But for now, we can say that the settlement of Korolewo around 1.4 million years ago calls into question the assumption that humans only moved to higher latitudes after the widespread colonisation of southern Europe around 1.2 million years ago.”

If the attribution of the tools to Homo erectus is correct, Korolewo, at 48.2 degrees north latitude, would therefore be the northernmost place known to date where this early human species lived. The conditions for this were probably not bad 1.42 million years ago; at that time there were three interglacial warm periods, which were among the warmest of their age (early Pleistocene).

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