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First European | Atapuerca, Spain
(Courtesy José M. Bermudez de Castro)

Ancient hominin bones found in northern Spain's Atapuerca Mountains have pushed back the arrival of humans in Europe to roughly 1.2 million years ago, some 500,000 years earlier than once believed. While digging at Sima del Elefante (Elephant Cave), paleoanthropologists unearthed a chunk of lower-jaw bone containing an incisor and parts of four other teeth that belonged to Homo erectus, the first human species to migrate out of Africa. The discovery is challenging the idea that Europe was settled by small, scattered groups of humans. "The arrival of people in Europe was much earlier than first thought and probably more continuous," says Jose M. Bermudez de Castro, codirector of the Atapuerca excavations. "We have populations that are living in Europe over a longer period, so maybe [occupation] isn't so sporadic."

Within the cave's 10-foot-square excavation area, the team has also found flints that were used as simple stone tools and pieces of bison bone with cut marks, as well as a large number of bird bones. Whether the animals were hunted or scavenged is an open question, but despite the apparent availability of meat, the person found at Sima del Elefante was probably not in good health. Preliminary analyses show he or she may have suffered from tooth infections and abscesses.

The ancient jaw may just be the beginning of the surprises from Sima del Elefante. Only about one-tenth of the site's total area has been excavated and the sediment extends 6 to 10 feet below where the jaw was found, which means there may be many more important discoveries in store.

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