Mystery Population of Humans Were Living in Europe 210,000 Years Ago, Long Before Major Migration out of Africa

A human skull discovered in a Greek cave has been found to date back 210,000 years—over 150,000 years before humans are believed to have first settled in Europe. The discovery suggests Homo Sapiens migrated out of Africa on multiple occasions before conquering the world.

The very first modern humans evolved in Africa around 350,000 years ago. They were preceded by a number of other Homo species—including Homo Erectus and Neanderthals, both of which had left Africa hundreds of thousands of years earlier.

There are known to have been many waves of migration out of Africa over our history, starting from around 270,000 years ago. However, the most significant and sustained move into Asia, Europe and the rest of the world is thought to have started between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago.

In a study published by Nature, a team of researchers showed evidence that modern humans had reached Europe far, far earlier.

They analyzed two skulls that were found in the Apidima Cave cave in Greece in the late 1970s. Neither skull had ever been scientifically analyzed as they were fragmented and there was little context about their discovery.

One skull, known as Apidima 2, appeared to be a Neanderthal from its morphological features. CT scans confirmed this. Dating revealed it lived about 170,000 years ago.

Apidima 1, however, posed more of a problem. The team only had the back of the skull and it had both primitive and modern features. However, they were still able to create a 3D reconstruction of the skull—to find it belonged to the species Homo Sapiens.

Apidima 1
The reconstruction of Apidima 1. Katerina Harvati, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

The discovery suggests there were at least two human species living at the site during the Middle Pleistocene—a group of modern humans followed by a population of Neanderthals. "Our findings support multiple dispersals of early modern humans out of Africa, and highlight the complex demographic processes that characterized Pleistocene human evolution and modern human presence in southeast Europe," the scientists concluded.

Modern human migration out of Africa is a complicated picture—and one that is becoming more complicated the bigger the fossil record gets. In 2017, scientists announced the discovery of Homo sapiens fossils in Morocco that dated back 300,000 years. This is far from the 'cradle of humanity' where it was thought our species first evolved, in southern and East Africa.

In an article about the latest discovery, Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist not involved in the study, said the findings provide an insight into the "complex history of our species and our close relatives as these populations dispersed out of Africa—from the early, unsuccessful dispersals to the migrations that eventually succeeded."

He said the Apidima fossils raise questions about what happened to this early Homo sapiens population that likely existed alongside Neanderthals. "Was it part of a population that was unable to compete successfully with Neanderthals, especially in the unstable climate of that time? Perhaps one or more times, the two species replaced each other as the main hominin group present in this region."

Eventually, modern humans replaced Neanderthals, with the latter going extinct about 40,000 years ago. "This evidence from Apidima, along with other discoveries, demonstrates that, on more than one occasion, modern humans kept pushing north and westwards from Africa and the Levant into Europe," Delson wrote. "Rather than a single exit of hominins from Africa to populate Eurasia, there must have been several dispersals, some of which did not result in permanent occupations by these hominins and their descendants."

skull file
File photo of a skull. iStock