Fossil finger points to early humans entering Saudi Arabia

Ignacio Smith
April 10, 2018

Scientists previously thought Homo sapiens departed Africa in a single, rapid migration some 60,000 years ago, journeying along the coastlines and subsisting on marine resources, said anthropologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Iyad Zalmout, one of the authors of the study, spotted the fossilized finger while he went on a walk during the excavation of the Al Wusta archaeological dig. The ancient lake bed (in white) is surrounded by sand dunes of the Nefud Desert.

This fossil of an intermediate phalanx bone, 1.2 inches long, suggests our species exited Africa far earlier. "Still, I doubt whether anyone can identify a single isolated finger bone as a modern human, as opposed to any other form of hominin", such as Neandertal, he says. "He said, "This is a human finger, '" Groucutt recalls".

The age of the fossil was dated using a technique called uranium series dating, which involves etching microscopic holes in the fossil with a laser and measuring the ratio between tiny traces of radioactive elements.

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The bone, from an adult and most likely a middle finger, was found in 2016 about 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of the Sinai Peninsula.

That's the oldest fossil from Homo sapiens ever found outside Africa and the Levant.

Al Wusta may be a desert now, but about 85,000 years ago, it had a freshwater lake frequented by many animals, including hippopotamuses, Pelorovis (a now-extinct genus of wild cattle) and Kobus (a genus of African antelope), whose fossilized remains were found at the site. This would make it the oldest human fossil found outside Africa and the Levant.

"They're coming up against animals that they've never seen before; environments they've never seen before", he said.

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"And, of course, hunters and gatherers would have been following those animals", Petraglia said.

Previously, it was theorised that Homo sapiens did not live continuously outside Africa until 60,000 years ago.

"If you look at any map of the world, when you are looking at Africa and you are looking at the rest of Eurasia, obviously Arabia could be a stepping stone out of Africa", said Petraglia.

Survey and mapping of the Al Wusta site. This finding could change scientists understanding of human migration.

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Although some say it's hard to identify our species, Homo sapiens, by a single bone, the findings appear unimpeachable, says John Shea, an anthropologist at the State University of NY in Stony Brook who studies human origins, but wasn't involved in the study. Instead, monsoon rains had transformed the area into a grassland with freshwater lakes and rivers.

"This find, together with other finds in last few years, suggests that modern humans, Homo sapiens, were moving out of Africa multiple times during many windows of opportunity during the last 100,000 years or so".

"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", Groucutt said in a statement.

The findings, published this week in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, are just the latest to lend further complexity to the story of human evolution and migration.

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