85000-year-old fossil finger points to early humans entering Saudi Arabia

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A bone, identified instantly as a human middle finger by an archaeologist in Saudi Arabia turned out to be 88,000 years old sending the scientists into ecstasy.

Scientists believe early people left Africa a couple of times after evolving there at least 300,000 years ago.

Researcher Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany says, 'This supports a model not of a single rapid dispersal out of Africa 60,000 years ago, but a much more complicated scenario of migration.

The finding from the Al Wusta site shows that there were both multiple dispersals out of Africa, and these spread further than previously known. "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. However, the researchers had their colleagues do a micro-computed tomography (CT) scan to make sure.

"All of these studies agreed that the fossil belonged to Homo sapiens", Groucutt said at the news conference.

A recently discovered finger bone believed to be Homo sapiens was dated using radio isotope techniques.

Six angles of a Homo sapiens fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia
AP Six angles of a Homo sapiens fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia

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.

Researchers say that this shows that human migration wasn't just restricted to the Levant, which had forest environment, changing the view that attempts to move away from the Levant were unsuccessful.

It was a very different landscape then, with grasslands and lakes hosting animals and humans.

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

"A massive swing towards arid climates drove major extinctions of the wetland animals, as well as numerous grassland species, forever changing the landscape and environments for humans in the Arabian Peninsula".

The research team has only explored a couple of hundred lakes out of 10,000 in the region.

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This new finding is one of many that are helping scientists map early humans' trek out of Africa.

The team recognised the bone as human on sight, and later confirmed this by comparing it to finger bones of other humans, extinct hominins like Neanderthals, and other primates such as gorillas.

"We know that shortly after they lived, the rains failed and the area dried up", said Oxford archaeologist Huw Groucutt. While the Levant was then a wooded area with winter rainfall, Al Wusta, about 400 miles (650 kilometers) away, was a grassland that received summer rain.

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

Palaeontologist Julien Louys from Griffith University said the discovery showed that modern humans were out of Africa and the nearby Levant region by about 85,000 or 90,000 years ago.

The results, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, detail the discovery made at the site of Al Wusta, an ancient fresh-water lake located in what is now the hyper-arid Nefud Desert.

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