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Al Wusta Phalanxes Document Humans Travel East of Africa Earlier

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The Al-Wusta Site, Michael Petraglia

The Al-Wusta Site, Michael Petraglia

Earlier this year we learned about the Misliya maxilla which pushed our understanding of out of Africa by 50,000 years. Last week, the discovery of a 87,000-year-old human intermediate phalanx (Al Wusta-1 (AW-1)) from the Nefud desert in Saudi Arabia was published in Nature Ecology and EvolutionThe importance of both discoveries show that modern humans existed outside Africa long before the dates most of us were taught.

The fossil was discovered by Iyad Zalmout of the Saudi Geological Survey in 2016. Around 84-87,000 years ago the Nefud desert was not a barren wasteland. Studying sediment and animal remains, the Al-Wusta site was a shallow lakeshore surrounded by grasslands where antelope grazed and hippos wallowed. At that time, the site was home to a few dozen hunter-gatherers who actually lived in a fairly densely populated groups.

The phalanxes were CT scanned to compare shape, dimensions, and proportions to the same bone in other hominins, nonhuman primates, and early and modern humans. These fingers likely belonged to an adult who had a hard life, as evidenced enthesophytes, a outgrowth of bone as response to repeated physical stress.

The fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta site, seen from six different angles. Photograph: Ian Cartwright

The fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta site, seen from six different angles. Photograph: Ian Cartwright

These bones are definitely Homo sapiens, which puts modern humans in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula after their earliest presence in the Levant and about 7,000 years before the first suggestion of their presence in Eastern Asia.

Overall we are beginning to understand that humans dispersed sooner and wider from multiple lines of evidence. Recent genetic studies suggest that Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa 260,000 to 350,000 years ago—not 220,000 years ago as previously thought. Fossils from Misliya Cave in Israel push back the date of human arrival in the Levant to 177,000 years ago, much earlier than 130,000 years suggested by the fossils found at Israel’s Skhul Cave and Qafzeh. And now there’s Al-Wusta.

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