A 400,000 year old hominin cranium found in Portugal

The Aroeira cranium (Photo courtesy Javier Trueba)
The Aroeira cranium (Photo courtesy Javier Trueba)

An article published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ describes the study of the oldest fossil cranium discovered in Portugal, in the Aroeira cave. A team led by archaeologist João Zilhão which includes anthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University found that incomplete cranium which has an age estimated at about 400,000 years along with animal remains and various artifacts including stone tools among which several handaxes.

The cranium object of the study was found on the last day of the 2014 excavation season. The sediments that contained the cranium were firmly cemented so an entire block was removed and taken to the Centro de Investigacion sobre la Evolucion y comportamiento Humanos in Madrid, Spain, a paleoanthropological research center. There they implemented a meticulous protocol for its extraction, a very slow process that went on for two years.

The cranium was subjected to a CT scan and a virtual reconstruction was produced. This study represents only the first phase of research on it because it’s already clear that this could be a very important discovery for the information it might provide about human evolution during the Middle Pleistocene in Europe and the origin of Neanderthals. It’s in fact the oldest human cranium found in Portugal and the westernmost found in Europe.

The fact that the fossil is incomplete with a part of the cranium, a fragment of the right jaw and a pair of molars makes the researches more difficult. At the moment it wasn’t possible to determine the person’s gender nor the cause of his/her death. The available parts show several features found in other European craniums dating from the Middle Pleistocene but with a combination of features never seen before in any other individual.

This new cranium increases the anatomical diversity in the hominids discovered from that period, suggesting that different populations showed different combinations of features. One possibility is that this is the ancestors of Neanderthals and if that was the case this discovery would confirm the theory that this species originated in Europe. Unfortunately, the scarcity of fossils, typically fragments, have always made this type of research difficult and the classification of many fossils controversial.

The cranium will be exposed in an exhibition on human evolution in October at the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon, Portugal. This waiting for the next results of the various studies begun on it in an international collaboration that has already involved several scientists, a confirmation that this is potentially a very important discovery.

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