Fossil finger from Saudi Arabia challenges migration theory

Research suggests humans arrived in Arabia much earlier than thought

This photo provided by Michael Petraglia shows six different views of a Homo sapiens fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. In a report released on Monday, April 9, 2018, researchers say the bone provides a new clue about when and how our species migrated out of Africa, with hunter-gatherers reaching the Saudi Arabia area by 85,000 years ago. (Ian Cartwright/Michael Petraglia via AP)
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A lone finger bone unearthed in the desert suggests modern humans had penetrated deep into Arabia 85,000 years ago.

A study, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, challenges a consensus that humans started to move en masse from Africa about 60,000 years ago, with a few small, unsuccessful migrations before.

Recent finds have led archaeologists to question that idea, with some claiming evidence of homo sapiens spreading beyond Africa and the adjacent Levant region 120,000 or more years ago.

However, there are doubts about many of discoveries, including those from China and Australia, said the authors of Monday's study.

Their new fossil finger bone, on the other hand, unquestionably belonged to a human and could be dated directly using radiometric technology, said the team.

Its age served as rare evidence that "our species was spreading beyond Africa much earlier than previously thought," said study co-author Huw Groucutt from the University of Oxford.

The bone, 3.2 centimetres long, is thought to be the middle bone of a middle finger, and is likely to have belonged to an adult. It was discovered in the Nefud Desert of Saudi Arabia in 2016 and analysed over two years.

Mr Groucutt and a team used a form of radiometry called uranium series dating to determine the bone's age by measuring tiny traces of radioactive elements.


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The tests revealed it was at least 85,000 years old - possibly 90,000 - making it the "oldest directly-dated homo sapiens" fossil yet found outside of Africa and the Levant, said the team.

It is the first fossil of a hominin - the group of humans and our direct ancestors - discovered in what is Saudi Arabia today.

This 2016 photo provided by Michael Petraglia shows a general view of the excavations at the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. The ancient lake bed (in white) is surrounded by sand dunes of the Nefud Desert. In a report released on Monday, April 9, 2018, researchers say a fossil finger bone found here provides a new clue about when and how our species migrated out of Africa, with hunter-gatherers reaching this area by 85,000 years ago. (Michael Petraglia via AP)

Other archaeological finds, which their discoverers claim are even older, may very well be authentic but were not directly dated, said the research team. Most had their age calculated from the sand or rock layers they were found in, or other items in the vicinity.

Besides redating the human migration from Africa, the study may alter its route.

"What we're arguing here is that there were multiple dispersals out of Africa, so the process of the movement and the colonisation of Eurasia was far more complicated than our textbooks tell us," said study co-author Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.


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According to one mainstream theory, humans left Africa in a single wave, moving along the coast from Africa via southern Arabia and India all the way to Australia.

The Levant is roughly the eastern Mediterranean area today covered by Israel, Lebanon, part of Syria, and western Jordan.

The finger shows "that modern humans were moving across the interior, the terrestrial heart, of Eurasia -- not along the coastlines," said Mr Petraglia.

The bone was discovered in an area known as Al Wusta that 90,000 years ago would have looked very different to the desert it is today – with plentiful rivers and lakes.

The team found fossils of animals, including hippos, as well as advanced stone tools.

This all pointed to the owner of the finger having been a member of a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer group moving after water and animals.