An article published in the journal “Nature Ecology and Evolution” describes the discovery of a fossil finger that belonged to a modern human dating back to about 90,000 years ago in Saudi Arabia. A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, made that discovery during an archaeological excavation at the site called Al Wusta in the Nefud desert. The modern human bone discovered is the oldest found so far out of Africa and the Levant.
So far, the findings of modern humans’ fossils suggested that the first migrations outside Africa had occurred between 130,000 and 90,000 years ago but only affected the South-East Asia area commonly called the Levant. The traces indicated that only after some tens of thousands of years modern humans started a new phase of migration that brought them to the rest of Asia and to Europe.
This reconstruction could change considerably after the discovery of a fossil in today’s Saudi Arabia. In what is now the hyper-arid Nefud desert, fossils of various animals were found together with various stone tools and especially the phalanx of a finger only 3.2 centimeters long, labeled as Al Wusta-1 (AW-1) which belonged to a Homo sapiens, a modern human being.
The identification of the phalanx was carried out by creating a 3D scan that was compared with that of the finger bones of other Homo sapiens but also with that of the finger bones of other hominins and other primates in general. The result was a confirmation of the attribution of the bone to a Homo sapiens. A radiometric dating technique dated the bone to about 88,000 years ago.
Further datings were conducted on the other fossil bones found together with the Homo sapiens phalanx and on the sediments of the site where they were discovered converging around an age of about 90,000 years. Environmental analyzes indicate that the Al-Wusta site is aged between 86,000 and 95,000 years, an era in which the area was occupied by a freshwater lake and grassland, very different from today’s desert.
Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute, leader of the archaeological project, explained that for years he’s been conducting research on the migration of modern humans. He and other colleagues had already found stone tools in Asia but no fossils.
The research carried out in recent years is revealing migrations more ancient than the known ones. A human jaw from about 180,000 years ago was recently discovered in Israel and now the discovery of this human finger indicates that Homo sapiens had already gone as far as present-day Saudi Arabia around 90,000 years ago. The comments of other researchers are cautious but research will continue to better understand those migrations.