A fossil of a middle finger found in Saudi Arabia is the oldest human fossil found outside of Africa and the Levant. In January, another group of researchers announced the discovery of a 194,000-year-old modern human jawbone in Israel's Misliya Cave, Live Science previously reported. The discovery is described in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. Signs of a knobble on the bone, they add, might be the result of manual activity, possibly the stress of making stone tools. It shows that our ancestors progressed beyond the Levant "bottleneck" much earlier than thought, creating a new staging post in Saudi Arabia from which they could push on into the rest of Asia.
It has been believed for many years now that our species - Homo sapiens - emerged from Africa and poured into the European continent approximately 60,000 years ago as part of a "single wave".
This 2016 photo provided by Michael Petraglia shows a general view of the excavations at the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. Travel to Arabia from Africa probably started 100,000 years ago.
"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.
This means that not only was there no single, great push into Europe by Homo sapiens, but they were already travelling even greater distances around 25,000 years earlier than we once thought.
AP Six angles of a Homo sapiens fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia
But no bones had been found that definiteively predated the migration outside Africa and the Levant - until now.
The fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta site, seen from six different angles.
"These animals tell us that when humans were living there it was not a desert, that the site was a lake, a small but permanent perennial freshwater lake, in a grassland setting", said Groucutt. At that time, the region would have been mostly semi-arid grasslands, regularly refreshed and soaked by a monsoon season.
"It's a discovery that we've been expecting for a while", said Robyn Inglis, an archaeologist at the University of York in England who was not involved in the research. The team estimates the bone is at least 85,000 years old. Other dates obtained from associated animals fossils and sediments converged to a date of about 90,000 years ago.
The idea that one bone can be definitively identified as belonging to Homo sapiens and not another species of hominin is controversial. Humans may have regularly migrated from Africa to surrounding regions whenever weather supported those movements, like it would have at Al Wusta. Because the country has historically closed itself off from foreign researchers, its role in modern humans' early migration story has been largely under-represented.
"Tracing the evolution and geographic dispersal of the human lineage is rather like connecting pitifully few dots on a vast three-dimensional grid of time and space", Donald O. Henry, an anthropologist from the University of Tulsa, wrote in an article published alongside the new study.
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