Human history 'began in Europe not Africa', scientists claim

Currently, most experts believe that our human lineage split from apes around seven million years ago in central Africa, where hominids remained for the next five million years before venturing further afield.

An worldwide team of researchers shook up the science books with two studies published Monday in the journal Plos One.

The birthplace of modern man may have been the eastern Mediterranean, rather than Africa, according to scientists studying newly discovered ancient fossils of a tooth and lower jawbone. This method allowed a more accurate dating than techniques used in other fossil findings, such as Australopithecus and Ardipithecus, two of the oldest known pre-humans.

According to an worldwide research team headed by Professor Madelaine Böhme from the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen and Professor Nikolai Spassov from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the salts found in the dust also show these remains to be from the Mediterranean region. Two different specimens from Greece and Bulgaria date back 7.2 million years ago.

Lead researcher Professor Madelaine Böhme said computer tomography helped visualise the internal structures of the fossils, which showed the roots of an upper premolar tooth were fused - this led to the conclusion the species was a hominid.

Quite the contrary, our species did actually evolve in Africa but our human lineage maybe did not.

But fossil evidence of hominid origins in Africa is also sparse and controversial (SN: 4/9/05, p. 227), says paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto, a coauthor of Fuss' study. Our data support the view that this split was happening in the eastern Mediterranean - not in Africa.

They also analyzed an upper premolar tooth from another primate, dated via paleomagnetic studies to 7.2 million years ago, discovered in the Balkans in Bulgaria.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are the nearest known relatives to humans, sharing 99 per cent of our DNA.

They found dental root development that possessed telltale human characteristics not seen in chimps and their ancestors, placing Graecopithecus within the human lineage, known as hominins.

The problem with such fossil finds is that they never provide the lasting clarity about human origins that scientists, and the public, crave. Together, the two features suggest Graecopithecus may have been a hominin, the researchers say.

The jawbone, which included teeth, was unearthed in 1944 in Athens.

There has been a long time standing consensus within the scientific community that hominins originated in Africa.

The new evidence does, potentially, cast the earliest potential hominins from Africa in a new light, says John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Europe is as likely a place of [hominid] origins, and even of the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, as Africa", he says.

Bernard Wood at George Washington University in Washington DC says the "hominin teeth" claim is relatively weak.

  • Carolyn Briggs