A 210,000-year-old human skull found in Greece shows that the human species left Africa much earlier than previously thought.

The exciting discovery was published in a new study in Nature of two fossils found in Greece in the 1970s shows that one of them is the oldest homo sapiens specimen out of Africa by more than 50,000 years. The human skull, found in Apidima Cave on the southwestern coast of the Peloponnese was originally identified as Neanderthal and disappeared into the general table of fossils from humans and their closest extinct hominins relatives.

However, a recent study from a multinational team led by Katerina Harvati reconstructed the specimens digitally and dated them by measuring their radioactive decay. The skull fragments, Apidimia 1 (rear) and Apidima 2 (compelte skull with clear face), had been distorted by the fossilisation process but the new “geometric-morphometric” analysis confirmed that Apidima 2 was an early Neanderthal from around 150,000 years ago. The digital recreation of the whole of the Apidima 1 skull to what it would have looked like led to the reclassification of the skull as a modern human (homo sapien) dating back to 210,000 years ago.

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Tracing humanity’s spread

Until now, human evolution is thought of as a linear story of new species developing and replacing older, simpler ones with the origins of modern humans originally believed to have been in the southern cape of Africa 80,000 years ago. They are believed to have dispersed out of the continent across the world, leading to the demise of Neanderthals in Europe around 40,000 years ago. Now, the narrative has grown difficult to sustain because of a range of new fossil discoveries and improvements to scientific dating and genetic evidence.

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The new data from Apidima further extends the complex picture of modern human dispersal and interaction with other hominin species, breaking traditional narratives and assumptions of the evolutionary history of modern humans.