A skull fragment extracted from the roof of a cave in Greece has sparked controversy among researchers studying early human origins in Europe.
In a study published this week in the journal Nature, researchers presented new analyses on what appears to be a 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull fragment. If the findings are confirmed, Apidima 1, as it’s been named, would be the oldest human fossil found anywhere outside of Africa.
Named after the Apidima Cave in Greece, where it was discovered, Apidima 1 was one of two skulls researchers analyzed in the new study. Anthropologists found Apidima 1 and the second skull, named Apidima 2, encased in rock in 1978.
Years later, researchers extracted the fossils. Apidima 1 turned out to be half of the back of one skull, while Apidima 2 was 66 fragments of a nearly complete skull. In the new study, University of Tübingen paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati and her team used a CT-scanner to create 3-dimensional models of the fossils, then digitally reassembled the pieces.
They found that Apidima 2 has a characteristic outward bulge at the back of the skull, called the occipital bun, which is found in Neanderthals skulls. “It looks like when you put your hair up in a bun,” Harvati told Carl Zimmer at the New York Times. But the reconstructed Apidima 1, the team found, has features consistent with Homo sapiens.
Apidima 1 has a much rounder skull shape than Apidima 2, which makes a compelling case that the skull belongs to an early modern human, Laura Buck, a University of California, Davis paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, told Zimmer. “That very round shape is something we tend not to see in other groups,” she told Zimmer.
Not everyone is convinced by the team’s findings, however. “I cannot see anything suggesting that the individual belongs to the sapiens lineage,” Juan Luis Arsuaga, a University of Madrid paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, told Maya Wei-Haas at National Geographic. Arsuaga examined Apidima 1 in 2017 and concluded the skull was Neanderthal.
Havarti and her team are careful to highlight the limitations of their analyses. Their paper notes that the skulls were distorted and incomplete, and that the site where they were found lacked any other signs of early modern humans, like stone tools.
“As with any challenging new find, the appropriate initial reaction should be a healthy skepticism, even when my own name is on the paper,” study author Chris Stringer, a physical anthropologist at London's Natural History Museum, told Wei-Haas. “We don’t have the frontal bone, brow ridge, face, teeth, or chin region, any of which could have been less ‘modern’ in form.”
Although the Apidima 1 skull fragment is just one data point, it’s the start of a much longer search for answers. “Of course it would be lovely to find more,” Harvati told Joel Achenbach at The Washington Post. “We intend to try to look.”