Contingency and Ancient Migration Out of Africa

January 13, 2020 10:22 a.m.

There is a robust scientific consensus that all human populations outside of Africa descend from migrations of homo sapiens out of Africa that took place between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. Before that, in Europe for instance, neanderthals were the dominant human or hominid population outside of Africa. But last year scientists performed a series of skeletal morphology and dating tests which appear to change the story dramatically.

In the late 1970s two skulls were found in the Apidima Cave in Greece by researchers from the University of Athens. But these skulls were crushed up and only fragmentary. So it wasn’t readily obvious what they were or how old they were. What this new study found was that one was a neanderthal skull from roughly 170,000 years ago. That squares with where and when neanderthals lived. The other skull was the surprise.

They were able to identify the other skull as homo sapien, a modern human. And that skull dated to 210,000 years ago. That’s 40,000 years older than other skull it was found with and well over 100,000 years older than the beginning of the disperal which is the basis of all modern human populations outside Africa.

As this article in LiveScience makes clear, this doesn’t change our understanding of the evolutionary trajectory of modern humans. Scientists have unearthed skeletal remains of modern humans in Africa from 100,000 years earlier than this skull found in Greece. What it appears to suggest is that homo sapiens migrated out of Africa much earlier than was previously known. But these early dispersals apparently failed. They simply died out. It was only the much later break out of homo sapiens that succeeded and eventually led to modern humans populating and later dominating almost the entire globe.

Here’s the primary article in Nature and here’s a more accessible write-up in Livescience.

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