Published: Tue, April 10, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

Desert bone the oldest homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa

Desert bone the oldest homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa

The team of worldwide researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History was conducting archaeological fieldwork in the Nefud Desert of Saudi Arabia when they came across the striking fossil. Based on its shape, scientists believe that it belonged to a member of the Homo sapiens species.

The bone, 3.2 centimetres long, is thought to be the middle bone of a middle finger, and is likely to have belonged to an adult.

The researchers say the discovery puts a spotlight on Saudi Arabia as the region could lead to even more exciting discoveries relating to our early ancestors and their first steps out of Africa.

Previously, it was theorised that Homo sapiens did not live continuously outside Africa until 60,000 years ago. The finger bone was originally found in 2016, but had to be studied extensively and compared with other early fossils from nonhuman primates and Neanderthals so researchers could conclusively say it was a homo sapien bone, the Times reported.

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The global consortium of researchers involved in this project is headed by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.

Numerous fossils were discovered at the site of Al Wusta, an ancient fresh-water lake located in what is now the hyper-arid Nefud Desert.

The age of the fossil was dated using a technique called uranium series dating, which involves etching microscopic holes in the fossil with a laser and measuring the ratio between tiny traces of radioactive elements.

"This supports a model not of a single rapid dispersal out of Africa 60,000 years ago, but a much more complicated scenario of migration", said anthropologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

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The fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta site, seen from six different angles.

In Australia, archaeologists turned up 65,000-year-old stone tools and other artefacts that suggest humans had reached the northern part of the continent by then.

The revelation, portrayed in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is the most established straightforwardly dated Homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa and the Levant and demonstrates that early dispersals into Eurasia were more extensive than already thought. Their hunch paid off 2 years later, when study co-author and paleontologist Iyad Zalmout of the Saudi Geological Survey in Jeddah found a small bone stuck in the sediment. That's what Huw Groucutt, a paleoarchaeologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and his team were looking for when they began excavating sites in the Arabian Desert more than 10 years ago.

It was an intermediate phalanx, the bone between a fingertip and finger knuckle. "That night back at the hotel, we were Googling 'human finger bone" and, yeah, it looked like our species". "There were abundant animals and a lot of people living there", Groucutt said.

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"The Arabian Peninsula has always been considered to be far from the main stage of human evolution". Instead, scientists studying the second phase have had to mostly rely on stone artifacts associations, chronometry, and other indirect evidence.

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