Ancient Roads to Europe: African Ancestors May Have Entered Europe Surprisingly Early

Article excerpt

Southeastern Spain's Iberian peninsula features vast, rolling stretches of sun-soaked soil that share a haunting beauty with desolate landscapes in eastern Africa. Josep Gibert, a paleontologist based in northern Spain at the M. Crusafont Institute in Barcelona, ventured into the peninsula's parched heart 20 years ago hoping to unearth ancient animal bones from a dried-up lake bed near the Andalusian village of Orce (pronounced oar-say).

Gibert found what he came for-and much more. Bone fragments and stone implements discovered since 1982 at three Orce sites indicate that human ancestors lived there as many as 1.8 million years ago, he says. If preliminary dates for this material hold up, Orce will contain the remains of Europe's oldest known members of the human evolutionary family, or hominids.

In fact, the sites would represent the European counterpart of eastern Africa's Olduvai Gorge, where scientists generally agree that hominids lived beginning around 1.8 million years ago.

Such antiquity-combined with evidence from other archaeological sites-would imply that African hominids could have taken any of several paths to Europe. Although usually thought to have traversed a land route running north from the Middle East and then westward across territory bordering the Mediterranean Sea or regions farther inland, they may have traveled across the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa or across the Bosporus Strait from Turkey.

Gibert's findings first reached a worldwide scientific audience in September 1995 at the International Congress of Human Paleontology, held in Orce. Since then, the Spanish discoveries have attracted great interest and spirited controversy. Much debate revolves around whether Gibert possesses sufficient data to pin such an advanced age on the Orce finds.

Scientists excavating sites in northern Spain's Atapuerca Mountains (SN: 8/12/95, p. 100), for example, suspect that hominids arrived at Orce and other parts of southern Europe more recently, approximately 1 million years ago. In addition, the fragmentary Orce fossils attributed to hominids by Gibert actually belonged to wild horses, the Atapuerca researchers argue.

Remarks Derek Roe of the University of Oxford, who independently examined the Orce sites and artifacts in 1993: "At this point, we can't prove or disprove the possibility that hominids occupied Orce 1.8 million years ago, but there's good evidence that they reached southern Spain by around 1 million years ago. That in itself is a new and unexpected element in European prehistory."

Orce's increased international visibility comes at a time of heightened receptivity to the notion that hominids trekked from Africa to Europe and Asia long before the appearance of modern Homo sapiens, which many researchers place at about 200,000 years ago. Asian hominid remains have been dated to 1.8 million years ago on the Indonesian island of Java (SN: 3/5/94, p. 150) and at Dmanisi in central Asia (SN: 2/11/95, p. 85) and to 1.9 million years ago at Longgupo cave in China (SN: 11/18/95, p. 327).

Doubts have emerged about these proposed early Asian arrivals, however. Age estimates at Java and Dmanisi come from sediment lying below the hominid finds, and further work will probably yield later dates, some scientists contend. Moreover, others maintain that Longgupo's fossils and artifacts cannot confidently be attributed to hominids.

Disputes have also arisen in regard to proposed early hominid sites in Europe-particularly those in Orce.

Everyone agrees that the three excavation sites deserve much further study. The Andalusian government issued no permits for scientific work at Orce in 1996, but three research teams have filed applications to conduct extended work there beginning later this year. Gibert heads one of those groups; another is coordinated by Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands; and Alain Turq, an archaeologist at France's National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies de Tayac, directs a third team. …