Human migration timeline changed again after finger fossil discovery

11 Apr 2018

Image: Katiekk/Shutterstock

A fossilised human finger found in the Arabian desert has once again rewritten the timeline of human migration, pushing back our history 30,000 more years.

It has been believed for many years now that our species – Homo sapiens ­– emerged from Africa and poured into the European continent approximately 60,000 years ago as part of a ‘single wave’.

However, this evidence has been challenged time and again in recent years thanks to a number of important archaeological finds, particularly in the area known as the Levant in the eastern Mediterranean.

Future Human

The latest discovery of a fossilised finger bone in the Arabian desert in a site called Al Wusta has once again changed our perceived timeline of human migration – not just by 1,000 years, but by multiple millennia.

According to The Guardian, the bone has been dated to approximately 90,000 years ago, making it the oldest directly dated human fossil outside of Africa and the Levant.

This means that not only was there no single, great push into Europe by Homo sapiens, but they were already travelling even greater distances around 25,000 years earlier than we once thought.

The international team published its findings in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. It said that the discovery of the fossil in the Nefud desert – along with 380 stone tools – helped piece together a migration map of humans from Africa eastwards into Asia.

Major piece of the puzzle

Until now, discoveries in India, East Asia and even Australia dating to 65,000 years ago showed that humans had migrated there, but the discovery of an ancient human in the Arabian peninsula suggests they passed through the Middle East to reach the east.

“This discovery of the fossil finger bone is like a dream come true because it supports arguments that our teams have been making for more than 10 years,” said co-author of the research, Prof Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

“This find, together with other finds in last few years, suggests that modern humans, Homo sapiens, were moving out of Africa multiple times during many windows of opportunity during the last 100,000 years or so.”

While the team has not been able to identify the original person’s gender or age from the bone, it was able to use uranium-series dating to put it at around 88,000 years old, backed up by dating of surrounding sediments.

Dr María Martinón-Torres, director of the Spanish National Research Centre for Human Evolution, said it has drawn a line in the sand regarding what we can now focus our research on.

“With the finding in Al Wusta, I would say that presence of Homo sapiens in Asia before 50,000 to 60,000 years ago is out of doubt, and we can now move on to the next questions: how and why modern humans left Africa and why they took so long to enter Europe,” she said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic