This is the face of the first European

The face of the first European. / María Dolors Guillén / Atapuerca Research Team

Science | paleoanthropology

It lived in Atapuerca 1.4 million years ago and could help delve into the origins of 'Homo antecessor'

"This is a revolution! It's an incredible thing!" Juan Luis Arsuaga was excited yesterday about Atapuerca's latest discovery, a human face from 1.4 million years ago. “In a site where we had already found a human jaw from 1.2 million years ago, the oldest face in Europe and one of the oldest in Eurasia now appears. It is something fantastic and totally unexpected, ”the co-director of the excavations in the Burgos mountains acknowledged to this newspaper. The fossil, presented to the world yesterday in the Trench of the Railway, corresponds to part of the left cheekbone and the upper jaw of a hominid of a species of 'Homo' still undetermined.

Archaeologist Edgar Téllez discovered the remains on June 30 at level TE7 of the Sima del Elefante, which ranges from 1.4 to 1.2 million years ago. They were encased in clay, and only after cleaning and analysis did experts confirm that they were human bones. The researchers have already taken samples to date the face, while at the same time analyzing pieces of lithic industry and remains of fauna with evidence of human consumption associated with the fossil. “At the level where it has been found, very little remains to be excavated. Surely, we will finish in this campaign. It is possible that we will find more fragments of the fossil, which is very broken”, the paleoanthropologist intuits. This new face "is going to give to do many studies", he anticipates.

With its 800,000 years and its modern face, 'Homo antecessor', discovered in 1994 at level TD6 of the Gran Dolina, was a surprise. Now, so is this new fossil, and for the same reason. “Everyone thinks that the older, the more robust, the more brutal. Gross in osteology is thick. Having a small brain does not necessarily mean that you have to have thick, robust bones, something that has more to do with chewing," explains Arsuaga. The new human face of Atapuerca is located chronologically in the universe of 'Homo erectus', who lived between 1.9 million years ago and 117,000 years ago, the paleoanthropologist points out.

A “graceful” modern face

'Homo erectus' fossils are poorly understood, and faces are barely known. The faces are very poorly preserved because they are full of air, the bone is very fine and is easily destroyed. An incredible job of both excavation and reconstruction has been done here”, the scientist is proud. The one presented yesterday in Atapuerca is “a graceful face. It is not a robust face. You have to think that perhaps the face of 'Homo erectus' is not always robust because, of course, European populations do not seem to have it that way. Here we have a modern face half a million years before 'Homo antecessor'.

Researcher Elena Moreno restores the fossil in the laboratory. /

María Dolors Guillén / Atapuerca Research Team

This is “very surprising”, admits Arsuga, for whom we are faced with “further proof that human evolution is not as linear as had been thought. There is a period of puffy faces much younger than these remains, and the Neanderthals mark the end of that period. What we see now is that this is not primitive, but that before there were faces that were not swollen and that later swelled in an evolutionary line that was not in ours," says the paleoanthropologist, who believes that the time has come to " question the species 'Homo erectus', which is a mixed bag that spans three continents and 2 million years. There are many very diverse things there and everything will have to be reviewed ».

With the new discovery, the last million and a half years of human history in Europe are written in Atapuerca. From the new fossil to us, through 'Homo antecessor', the Neanderthals, our Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors... "It is a very discontinuous record and is full of questions," says Arsuaga in reference to the oldest findings. It is possible that the new fossil helps to delve into the origins of 'Homo antecessor', but also that the scenario is different.

«Now we have fossils in Atapuerca from 800,000 years ago, 1.2 million years ago and 1.4 million years ago. Is it a population that has evolved locally from a first arrival from Africa or are there substitutions of populations by new arrivals?” asks Arsuaga, to whom 'Homo antecessor', with its 800,000 years, “begins to seem very recent. In Atapuerca we are already in African chronologies, like those of Olduvai and other mythical sites.

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