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Boffins battle over oldest European woman

Old girl causes archaeological dust-up

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Boffins are scrapping over the identity of the oldest woman in Europe after the discovery of a 1.2 million-year-old probably female jaw.

Some scientists believe that the recently discovered fossil gives weight to the theory that primitive humans came to Europe shortly after leaving Africa two million years ago, passing by the ex-Soviet Union and then coming to Western Europe. However, others in the field insist the discovery means nothing conclusive.

The discovery of what appears to be the oldest human ancestor ever found in the European continent, were revealed by Spanish researchers in a paper published in Nature. It was unearthed on the archaeological site of Atapuerca in Spain, and is 400,000 years older than the oldest examples so far discovered in western Europe, pushing back the dates of human occupation of the continent. Together with the fossil, researchers found stone tools and animal bones with marks indicating they had been butchered.

"So far we thought that the European hominin had came directly from Africa, but now we’ve found something that is an European hominin, different from the African ones," explained Eudald Carbonell of the Human Palaeoecology Institute in Tarragona, who led the research. He believes that the new species, named Homo antecessor, descends from the primitive humans from Dmanisi, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

These are the oldest known hominin fossils ever found outside Africa, aged around 1.7 million years. "There are similarities between the Dmanisi fossils and this one," Carbonell said.

The research team think it is possible that after reaching Spain, the homo antecessor became two different species: the Neanderthals, who became extinct, and the Homo sapiens, who became us.

However, not all scientists agree on that. They believe that the new fossil is not a proof, and that more evidence must still be found to make a strong case for the Africa-Georgia-Spain theory. Until it happens, they are standing by the more established explanation that we descend from Africans from a much later migration wave, 150 or 200 thousand years ago.

So far, the only thing that is for sure is that the stone tools found with the "oldest European lady" are less sophisticated than tools from the same time found in Africa, meaning that at least 1.2 million years ago, African societies were more technologically advanced than Europe. ®

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