The distinctive facial characteristics of a person who may be the oldest known ancient human relative in Europe are revealed by an ancient upper jawbone found in Spain.
The fossil was discovered in June in Sima del Elefante (Pit of the Elephant in Spanish), an archeological site in the Atapuerca Mountains close to Burgos in northern Spain that is renowned for its extensive fossil collection. The researchers claimed in a translated statement that the fractured skull is thought to be the oldest of its kind ever discovered in Europe and contains a tooth and a portion of the top jawbone (maxilla) of a hominid who lived around 1.4 million years ago.
According to The Australian Museum, the term “hominid” refers to all current and extinct members of the human and great ape family tree, including modern humans and our earliest human ancestors, chimpanzees, and gorillas.
The earliest known hominid fossils discovered in Europe were 1.2 million years old when they were discovered in Sima del Elefante in 2008. According to a 2012 research printed in the British Dental Journal, the discovery includes multiple bone pieces and a section of a mandible, or the lower jawbone.
Researchers weren’t expecting to find fossils that were older than those already discovered at the site, thus the most recent find caught them off guard.
According to the Spanish daily newspaper El Pas, the upper jawbone was unearthed by Édgar Téllez, a doctorate student at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution in Burgos. It was discovered around 6.5 feet (2 meters) deeper in the clay soil than the fossils recovered in 2008.
Paleoanthropologists think the upper jawbone has traits that highlight the development of the human face, comparable to the earlier petrified discoveries.
According to Téllez, “this maxilla also exhibits a vertical projection, similar to the mandible discovered in , which may suggest that this contemporary face was already in use at this period.”
In other words, according to Téllez and his team, the bone may have belonged to a person who was more closely linked to modern Europeans than more ape-like primates, such Homo habilis, an extinct species of archaic humans from Africa dating to the Pleistocene era (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago).
According to a 1999 study published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the fossil may have originated from Homo antecessor (Latin for “pioneer man”), whose position in the human family tree is debatable but who may be a near relative of contemporary humans and Neanderthals. (In 1994, the first fossilized remains of Homo antecedent were discovered in Atapuerca.)
The latest find, according to John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the current excavation, sheds light on the people that once lived in this region.
As of right now, Hawks told Live Science, “We don’t know precisely where this portion of the upper jaw is going to fit, and it’s going to take a lot of study and comparison for that team to identify [this].”
“Whatever they decide, this is connected to a location with behavioral proof. Every item we own that is connected to a location where behavioral evidence was found, such as when stone tools were made or animals were hunted, reveals something about our ancestors’ and relatives’ behavioral abilities. That’s the part that matters to me.”
The upper jawbone’s actual age and its relationship to the other fossils discovered there will need to be determined by further investigation, according to the site’s specialists.