Researchers said on Monday the middle bone of an adult's middle finger found at site called Al Wusta is the oldest Homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa and the immediately adjacent eastern Mediterranean Levant region, as well as the first ancient human fossil from the Arabian peninsula. Now, archaeologists have evidence of humans successfully striking out into the unknown, early in our species' history.
"This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonised an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant", said Huw Groucutt from the University of Oxford in the UK. In earlier times, it was thought that they did not venture far from the cradle of humanity before 60,000 years ago.
"These animals tell us that when humans were living there it was not a desert, that the site was a lake, a small but permanent perennial freshwater lake, in a grassland setting", said Groucutt.
"This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonized an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant", said lead author Dr. Huw Groucutt, from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.
Dr Mathieu Duval, of Griffith University, part of the worldwide research team that found the fossil, told nine.com.au it points to humans beginning movement from Africa at a much earlier date than conventionally thought.
This 2016 photo provided by Michael Petraglia shows a general view of the excavations at the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. Teeth found in Chinese caves have been dated to between 80,000 and 120,000 years, although the dates are based on the caves' stalagmites, not the teeth themselves. It is the second bone in from the fingertip, but it's not clear which finger. It's 3.2 centimeters long and was probably was part of a middle finger. When the bone was buried, it absorbed uranium, which can be measured and provide a minimum age estimate.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have published the study in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Scientists previously believed that humans left Africa in a single migration 60,000 years ago - but the new find challenges that.
In addition to the human remains, abundant stone tools made by humans and numerous animal fossils, including those of hippopotamus and tiny fresh water snails, were found at the site.
Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, agrees, noting there's so much anatomical overlap between hominin species that she'd like to see additional fossils confirm it.
Traditionally, the migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa was portrayed as a single exodus from the continent that highlights one stop to the next, like a New York City subway map. They also raise questions about how long these early migrants' descendants lived on.