Fossil finger from Saudi Arabia challenges migration theory

10 April, 2018, 20:13 | Author: Becky Perry
  • Finger bone points to new insight on human migration

"Still, I doubt whether anyone can identify a single isolated finger bone as a modern human, as opposed to any other form of hominin", such as Neandertal, he says. This is also the first time Homo sapiens bones of that age have been discovered anywhere outside Africa. In addition, because the bone has mineralized into a fossil and has sat in an arid environment for thousands of years, it likely doesn't have any DNA left in it, Groucutt said.

"What we're arguing here is that there were multiple dispersals out of Africa, so the process of the movement and the colonisation of Eurasia was far more complicated than our textbooks tell us", said study co-author Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Genetic studies suggest that non-Africans today are descended from modern humans who walked out of Africa up to 60,000 years ago, with earlier migrants dying out - possibly due to the impact of Neanderthals, or being overwhelmed by further waves of our own species.

Writing in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the team describe how the finger bone was discovered in northern Arabia in 2016 at a site called Al Wusta in the Nefud desert, with a collection of 380 stone tools nearby suggesting groups of tens of humans would have been living at the site.

This would make it the oldest human fossil found outside Africa and the Levant. The Nefud Desert's sand dunes surround the ancient lake bed (white).

The researchers found at least 860 animal bones, and the most common were water-loving animals like hippos and buffalo.

General view of the excavations at the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia.

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"A massive swing towards arid climates drove major extinctions of the wetland animals, as well as numerous grassland species, forever changing the landscape and environments for humans in the Arabian Peninsula".

The fossil of a finger that dates back over 85,000 years may end up changing everything the world knows about the history of the human race. It's possible that monsoonal rains, which had transformed the region into a humid, semiarid grassland crisscrossed with rivers and lakes, drew these animals from sub-Saharan Africa to Arabia, Petraglia said.

This new finding is one of many that are helping scientists map early humans' trek out of Africa.

"Naturally, hunter-gatherers would have followed", he said.

"The Al Wusta research adds support to the notion that there were numerous, perhaps almost continuous, pulses of Homo sapiens dispersals from Africa, and that regional moist episodes may have triggered the dispersals", says Donald Henry of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. When the Saudi finger bone is combined with the teeth from China and the artifacts from Australia, "it does all fit together very neatly", Groucutt said.

Early humans are known to have reached the Levant, a region of the Mediterranean adjacent to Africa, perhaps 177,000 years ago.

"Tracing the evolution and geographic dispersal of the human lineage is rather like connecting pitifully few dots on a vast three-dimensional grid of time and space", Donald O. Henry, an anthropologist from the University of Tulsa, wrote in an article published alongside the new study.

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