A jawbone fragment discovered last month in northern Spain may be the oldest known fossil of a human ancestor found in Europe so far, Spanish paleontologists said on Friday.
The researchers said the fossil, found on June 30 at an archaeological site in northern Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains, is about 1.4 million years old.
So far, the oldest hominid fossil found in Europe was a jawbone found in the same place in 2007 and estimated to be 1.2 million years old.
Atapuerca contains one of the richest records of prehistoric human habitation in Europe.
The researchers must now “complete” their initial estimate for the age of the jawbone fragment using scientific dating techniques, paleoanthropologist Jose-Maria Bermudez de Castro, the co-director of the Atapuerca research project, said during a news conference.
But since the jawbone fragment was found about two meters below the layer of soil where the jawbone was found in 2007, “it’s logical and reasonable to assume it’s older,” he added.
The scientific dating of the jawbone fragment is being carried out at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution in Burgos, a town about 10 kilometers from Atapuerca.
The process should take six to eight months, Bermudez de Castro said.
The analysis could help identify which hominid species the jawbone fragment belongs to and better understand how humans evolved on the European continent.
To which species the jawbone discovered in 2007 belonged, scientists have not yet been able to determine with certainty.
The fossil could correspond to the species Homo antecessor discovered in the 1990s.
The Atapuerca Foundation, which operates the archaeological site, said in a statement it was “very likely” that the jawbone fragment “belonged to one of the first populations to colonize Europe.”
The archaeological site of Atapuerca was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000, giving it access to United Nations conservation funds.
It contains thousands of hominid fossils and tools, including a flint found in 2013 that is 1.4 million years old.
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