A Fossil From the Balkans Sheds New Light on Human Evolution

Dr. MIrjana Roksandic

Dr. MIrjana Roksandic

WINNIPEG, MB – A fossil fragment of a human lower jaw recovered from a Serbian cave is the oldest human ancestor found in this part of Europe. The newly obtained radiometric date of the fossil was published today in PLOS ONE by William Jack Rink, McMaster University, Canada, and the international team under the direction of Dušan Mihailović, University of Belgrade, Serbia, and Mirjana Roksandic, University of Winnipeg, Canada.

“The fossil was found to be at least 397,000 years old and possibly older than 525,000 years old,” explained Rink. “We used three independent techniques (electron spin resonance, uranium series isotopic analysis and infrared luminescence dating) which had remarkably consistent results reinforcing our conclusion. This established the mandible as the oldest easternmost European fossil of its kind.”

“During this time, humans in Western Europe started to develop Neandertal traits, which is lacking in this specimen,” explained Roksandic. ”Scientists now think the evolution of Neandertal traits was strongly influenced by periodic isolation caused by episodic formation of glaciers. On the other hand, humans in southeastern Europe were never geographically isolated from Asia and Africa by glaciers and accordingly, this resulted in different evolutionary forces acting on early human populations in this region. The Balkan Peninsula could have belonged to the postulated core area from which human populations repopulated Europe after the glaciers receded. The status of this specimen as Homo erectus s.l. fits well with this explanation.”

“Southeastern Europe is very important in understanding human evolution,” expressed Mihailović. “Well dated human fossils from this time period are rare, and one from this part of the world is exceptional. The date opens a new and exciting frontier in research. This study confirms the importance of southeast Europe as a ‘gate to the continent’ and one of the three main areas where humans, plants and animals sought refuge during glaciations in prehistoric times. This inspires us to continue to dig.”

This find is a result of an international – interdisciplinary collaboration of anthropologists, archeologists, physicists and earth scientists – from Serbia, Canada, England and France. The site has been excavated by the University of Belgrade since 2004 funded by the Serbian Ministry of Culture, and since 2010 hosts an International field-school in Paleoanthropology and Paleolithic Archaeology jointly with The University of Winnipeg. The mandible was found in 2006 and dated initially at the University of Bordeaux. Electron spin resonance (ESR) work was carried out in Dr. Rink’s laboratory at McMaster University’s School of Geography and Earth Sciences and at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor. The uranium series isotopic analysis was carried out at the Centre de Recherche GEOTOP, Université du Québec à Montréal. Infrared stimulated luminescence (IRSL) dating was performed at the Centre de Recherche en Physique Appliquée à l’Archéologie at the University of Bordeaux (France).

PLOS ONE is one of the most prestigious open access journals that publishes general science and the published paper can be found at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0054608).

For more information on UWinnipeg’s exciting research and field-school in Paleoanthropology and Paleolithic Archaeology visit  http://www.uwinnipeg.ca/index/anthro-field-school-index.

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