Fossilised skulls discovered in the Apidima Caves in Greece suggest modern humans may have arrived in Eurasia more than 150,000 years earlier than first thought.
The specimens included two fossilised partial human crania that were discovered by the Museum of Anthropology, University of Athens in the late 1970s.
A team of researchers from the Universities of Tübingen and Athens, and including the Natural History Museum’s Professor Chris Stringer, conducted a new study of the samples.
Their results indicate that Homo sapiens may have reached Europe at least 210,000 years ago, more than 150,000 years earlier than previously known.
Prof Stringer said: “When we first studied the two fossil human crania from Apidima Cave, our assumption was that they were found close together and could therefore both be dated by a Uranium Series determination on one of the skulls.
“But the more we studied Apidima 1, the less it looked like Apidima 2 and Neanderthal fossils – although only part of the back of the cranium was preserved, it looked like Homo sapiens fossils from the last 100,000 years.
“Now we know from further dating that this modern human fossil is actually older than the Neanderthal one from the same site.”
Lead researcher Professor Katerina Harvati, from the University of Tubingen, added: “Our results suggest that at least two groups of people lived in the Middle Pleistocene in what is now southern Greece: an early population of Homo sapiens and, later, a group of Neanderthals.”
This supports the hypothesis that early modern humans spread out of Africa, where they evolved, multiple times, researchers say.
Reconstructions of the Apidima 1 cranium revealed a high and rounded shape – a unique feature of modern humans which contrasts sharply with Neanderthals.
The new research, published in Nature, conducted numerous comparisons with different human fossils, and used a highly accurate radiometric dating method to determine their age.
Researchers used cutting edge technology, including virtual reconstructions of the damaged parts of the skulls to discover more about the origins of the fossils.