Portuguese cave yields 400,000-year-old human ancestor skull fossil

Researchers in Portugal are celebrating a new discovery: a 400,000-year-old cranium fossil belonging to an ancient ancestor of modern day humans. The fossil was discovered in a cave by an international team of researchers, and it is a new milestone for the small nation, being the oldest such fossil unearthed in Portugal to date. The skull fragment could help shed light on the evolution of Neanderthals, and may even reveal a new hominin species altogether.

Whether the cranium fossil will ultimately prove to originate from a new hominin species is unknown at this time. However, researchers say the discover will both help shed light on the origin of Neanderthals and also on the evolution of humans during the middle of the Pleistocene age in that part of Europe. Even better, the skull was discovered alongside stone tools.

The skull is something of a milestone for the region, being the westernmost fossil of its kind to ever be found. As well, the date of 400,000 is said to be well-established, something that contrasts with similar ancient skull discoveries that have less certain dates. This is thanks in part to the ancient stone tools discovered with the cranium, including a couple of handheld axes.

Talking about the discovery, Binghamton University Associate Professor Rolf Quam:

This is an interesting new fossil discovery from the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for understanding the origin and evolution of the Neandertals. The Aroeira cranium is the oldest human fossil ever found in Portugal and shares some features with other fossils from this same time period in Spain, France and Italy. The Aroeria cranium increases the anatomical diversity in the human fossil record from this time period, suggesting different populations showed somewhat different combinations of features.

SOURCE: EurekAlert