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Home » Oldest human cranium found in Portugal sheds light on human evolution

Oldest human cranium found in Portugal sheds light on human evolution

A groundbreaking discovery has been made by an international research team led by Portuguese archaeologist João Zilhão and including anthropologist Rolf Quam from Binghamton University. They have uncovered the oldest fossil human cranium ever found in Portugal, shedding light on human during the middle Pleistocene in Europe and the origins of the Neanderthals.

The cranium is remarkable as it represents the westernmost human fossil from the middle Pleistocene epoch in Europe and is associated with the Acheulean stone tool industry. Unlike other poorly dated fossils from this period, the Aroeira cave discovery in Portugal is well-dated to 400,000 years ago and was found alongside abundant faunal remains and stone tools, including numerous handaxes.

Quam emphasizes the importance of this finding, stating that the Aroeira cranium contributes significantly to our understanding of Neanderthal origins in the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for such research. The cranium shares some characteristics with other fossils from Spain, France, and Italy from the same time period, indicating varying features among different populations during that era. This new discovery enriches the human fossil record and offers intriguing insights into our ancient past.

A virtual reconstruction of the Aroeira 3 cranium. Credit: Rolf Quam

During the final day of the 2014 field season, the cranium was unearthed at the Aroeira site. Due to the firmly cemented sediments surrounding it, the cranium was carefully removed in a large, solid block. The block was then transported to the restoration laboratory at the Centro de Investigacion sobre la Evolucion y Comportamiento Humanos, a renowned paleoanthropology research center in Madrid, Spain. Over the course of two years, a painstaking process of preparation and extraction ensued.

Rolf Quam expressed gratitude for the immense collaborative effort that made this study possible. Countless individuals, including dedicated archaeologists who have worked at the site for years, the skilled preparator who meticulously removed the fossil from its breccia surroundings, the researchers who CT scanned the specimen and conducted virtual reconstructions, and the anthropologists who delved into its study, all played crucial roles. The study stands as a remarkable example of international scientific collaboration, and Quam feels privileged to be part of it.

For João Zilhão, who has dedicated three decades to studying these sites, discovering a human cranium of such antiquity and significance was an incredibly special and defining moment in his research journey.

Acheulean handaxes from the Aroeira site. Credit: Rolf Quam

In October, the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon, Portugal, will feature the new fossil as the centerpiece of an exhibit on human evolution. The study, titled “New Middle Pleistocene hominin cranium from the Gruta da Aroeira (Portugal),” has been published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This exciting research showcases the significance of the Aroeira cranium and its valuable contribution to our understanding of human history during the middle Pleistocene epoch. Visitors to the exhibit will have the opportunity to delve into the fascinating world of ancient human ancestors and the intricate process of human evolution.

Source: Binghamton University


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