Researchers Find 88,000-Year-Old Finger Bone That Rewrites Mankind’s History

Scientists have come across an 88,000-year-old finger bone that promises to rewrite—again—mankind’s history.

The human fossil discovered in Saudi Arabia tells us that our ancestors migrated out of Africa 20,000 years earlier than first believed.

A group of scientists has revealed the discovery of a phalanx belonging to Homo sapiens, fossils of various animals and geological data that suggest that early people may have migrated to the Arabian Peninsula nearly 88,000 years ago.

The discoveries suggest that early man migrated to the Arabian Peninsula when the climate of the region transformed the deserts of the area into humid pastures, which mean that our ancestor migrated towards a friendlier environment that allowed our species to leave Africa, towards Asia, using a route that had experts thought was not possible before.

The discovery offers evidence of the oldest human fossil remains found outside of Africa and the so-called Levante region (Near East) and demonstrates that these populations were able to leave the continent in this way and expand, not in a sporadic way, but in a prolonged way after adapting to this new environment.

The authors of the research, archaeologist Huw Groucutt, of the University of Oxford (United Kingdom), anthropologist Michael Petraglia, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Germany) and their colleagues have published their results in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Survey and mapping of the Al Wusta site. Image Credit: Klint Janulis.

The Bone in question

The bone, a 3.2-centimeter phalanx, was unearthed in 2016 at the archaeological site of Al Wusta, which lies in the middle of the An-Nafud desert in northern Saudi Arabia.

The revolutionary bone was scanned using 3D equipment and its shape was compared to various other finger bones, both of recent Homo sapiens individuals, from other species of early humans including Neanderthals.

Using a technique called uranium-series dating, researchers used a laser to make miniature holes in the finger in order to measure the ratio between tiny traces of radioactive elements. These ratios revealed that the fossil was around 88,000 years old.

As noted by experts, the results have conclusively proven the finger bone, the first ancient human fossil found in Arabia, belonged to our own species.

Speaking about the discovery, lead author Dr. Huw Groucutt, of the University of Oxford said:

“This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonized an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant.”

“The ability of these early people to widely colonize this region casts doubt on long-held views that early dispersals out of Africa were localized and unsuccessful. This finger bone from Al Wusta suggests homo sapiens is moving out of Africa far earlier than 65,000 years ago, it’s 20,000 years earlier than expected.”

Fossil finger bone of Homo sapiens from the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia. Image Credit: Ian Cartwright

It is noteworthy to mention that other homo sapiens bones have been dated as far as 177,000 years ago, in a cave in Israel.

Prior to this discovery, experts believed that early migrations to Eurasia were unsuccessful and limited to the to the Mediterranean forests of the Levant, the so-called doorstep of Africa.

However, the fossil discovered in 2016 suggests that our ancestors migrated Arabia after crossing the Red Sea during a time when it was more than just a river.

The finding suggests that early humans ventured out into what is today Arabia sooner than previously believed.

Further analysis of the terrain where the discovery was made has shown that the site used to be a massive freshwater lake in an ancient grassland environment very different from today’s arid desert.

During that time, Arabia was most likely not as dry as it is today, covered with rivers and hundreds of lakes.

“The Arabian Peninsula has long been considered to be far from the main stage of human evolution. This discovery firmly puts Arabia on the map as a key region for understanding our origins and expansion to the rest of the world. As fieldwork carries on, we continue to make remarkable discoveries in Saudi Arabia,” said Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

For more information about the discovery visit the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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