Around 210,000 years ago, an early human died in southern Greece -- leaving scientists with the earliest evidence of human migration out of Africa and prompting them to reconsider the story of how our species spread throughout the planet.
A new analysis of that ancient person's skull suggests Homo sapiens left their birthplace in Africa about 16,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
"We are seeing evidence of human dispersals that are not just limited to one major exodus out of Africa, as perhaps we have thought in the past, but multiple dispersals," said study leader Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany.
The skull was found about 40 years ago in Greece's Apidima Cave. The specimen, dubbed Apidima 1, was situated nose to nose just 30 centimeters (about 12 inches) away from a second human-like skull known as Apidima 2.
The two partial skulls were not near anything that offered archaeologists useful clues about their origin: no stone tools, no animal remains, nothing.
In time, researchers determined that Apidima 2, the more complete of the two skulls, belonged to a Neanderthal.
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But Apidima 1 did not get its due until the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Athens invited Harvati to use her expertise in imaging and 3-D virtual reconstruction to bring both of the skulls to life.
The results confirmed that Apidima 2 belonged to a Neanderthal who lived about 170,000 years ago.
Apidima 1, however, has features that distinguish it as a modern human. Its owner lived some 40,000 years before its Neanderthal neighbor, making it the oldest human skull found outside of Africa.
When the researchers removed the skulls from their surrounding rock using a chisel and hammer, tiny bone fragments became dislodged as well.