A fossil jawbone, rudimentary tools and animal skeletons from a cave in Spain extend the earliest occupation of Europe by human ancestors back to as much as 1.3 million years ago, half a million years earlier than previously believed, researchers reported Wednesday.
The findings suggest that early hominids swept out of Africa, through the Near East and into Europe much more rapidly than previously believed, said Spanish researchers who reported the find in the journal Nature.
The speed with which these hominids spread has been a subject of great debate among archaeologists, but the new relics and others previously found in the region put the idea of a rapid migration on a firm foundation, experts said.
The find indicates that "the occupation of Europe happened very early and much faster than we had thought," said archaeologist Eudald Carbonell of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleo-Ecology and Social Evolution, the lead author of the report.
The two-inch fragment of jawbone and teeth was found last year in a massive cave called Sima del Elefante in the Atapuerca hills near Burgos in northern Spain. Three types of dating confirm that the fossil is 1.1 million to 1.3 million years old.
The site also yielded flint blades, flakes that were a byproduct of blade production, and skeletons of long-extinct species of weasels and mice that showed cut marks and other evidence of processing by the hominids.
The location has proved to be a rich trove of fossils. The cave is 200 yards away from a site called Gran Dolina, where Carbonell and his colleagues had previously found 800,000-year-old remains of a hominid called Homo antecessor, or Pioneer Man. Those were previously the oldest known hominid remains in Europe.
Before that 1997 find, the oldest known hominid relics in the region were 500,000 years old.
The cave is also about 1,000 yards away from a site where researchers have uncovered more than 6,000 remains of the related species Homo heidelbergensis.
Carbonell and his colleagues have tentatively identified the new find as Homo antecessor, which they believe is an ancestor of both the Neanderthals and modern humans -- Homo sapiens.
But experts including Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London said that identification may be premature, because the piece of jawbone found at Sima del Elefante is from a different area of the jaw than the pieces found at Gran Dolina, making an absolute match impossible.
Carbonell said the new fossil was very similar to a 1.8-million-year-old hominid fossil found in the Caucasus at Dmanisi, Georgia. He believes early hominids migrated from Africa into the Caucasus, then swept west into Europe, where they evolved into Homo antecessor.
He predicted that researchers would eventually find fossil evidence of hominids in Europe dating from 1.6 million to 1.8 million years ago.
If his ideas about migration are correct, however, then it is more likely that Homo antecessor is an evolutionary dead end rather than a direct ancestor of modern humans.
Most researchers now think that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated out about 60,000 years ago.