Archaeologists have uncovered a human skull fossil that is about 400,000 years old from a Portuguese cave. The scientists also discovered stone tools and animal remains around the fossil.
The well-preserved fossil sheds light on how humans evolved in western Europe during the middle Pleistocene — a period that spanned approximately between 781,000 to 126,000 years ago.
The cranium discovered in Portugal’s Aroeira cave belonged to a Neanderthal, the nearest extinct relative of homo sapiens sapiens.
Scientists believe it is the oldest human fossil ever found in Portugal and is similar to other fossils discovered in Italy, France and Spain from the Pleistocene.
According to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the cranium is among the earliest European human fossils to be linked to ancient stone tools.
“The Aroeria cranium increases the anatomical diversity in the human fossil record from this time period, suggesting different populations showed somewhat different combinations of features,” said Rolf Quam, a co-writer of the study and an anthropologist from Binghamton University in New York, in a press release.
“This is an interesting new fossil discovery from the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for understanding the origin and evolution of the Neanderthals,” Quam said.
Though rare, a 400,000-year-old fossil is considered relatively young by paleontologists.
Two fossil jaws have been recently found in Ethiopia and point to the human genus, Homo, arriving in East Africa about 2.8 million years ago.
The fossil remains of Lucy, a well known early human ancestor, show she lived in present-day Ethiopia some 3.2 million years ago.
The Aroeira cave study was conducted by both Quam and Portuguese archaeologist Joao Zilhao. They led a global team that came across the cranium on the last day of the 2014 archaeological field season.
The researchers were forced to remove the fossil from the cave in a solid block as the cranium was deeply entrenched in the hard soil.
Over the next two years, at a paleontological research center in Madrid, scientists “painstakingly” removed the cranium from the block and restored it, Quam said.
They then CT-scanned the fossil and performed virtual reconstructions.
The fossil will be the showpiece of a human evolution exhibit at the National Archeology Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, this October.