A jaw fragment discovered in northern Spain last month may be the oldest known fossil of a human ancestor found so far in Europe, Spanish paleontologists said on July 8.
Researchers said the fossil discovered at an archaeological site on June 30 in the Atapuerca mountain range in northern Spain was around 1.4 million years old.
So far, the oldest hominid fossil found in Europe was a jawbone found at the same site in 2007, which was determined to be 1.2 million years old.
Atapuerca contains one of the richest testimonies of prehistoric human occupation in Europe.
Researchers will now have to “complete” their first estimate of the age of the jaw fragment using scientific dating techniques, said paleoanthropologist Jose-Maria Bermudez de Castro, co-director of the Atapuerca research project, during a press conference.
But since the jaw fragment was found about two meters below the layer of earth where the jaw was found in 2007, “it is logical and reasonable to think that it is older,” he added.
The scientific dating of the jaw fragment will be carried out at the National Center for Human Evolution Research in Burgos, a town located about 10 kilometers from Atapuerca.
The process is expected to take six to eight months, Bermudez de Castro said.
The analysis could help identify which hominid species the jaw fragment belongs to and better understand the humans that evolved on the European continent.
So far, scientists have not been able to determine with certainty what species the jawbone discovered in 2007 belonged to.
The fossil could correspond to the species called Homo antecessor, discovered in the 1990s.
The Atapuerca Foundation, which manages the archaeological site, said in a statement “very likely” that the jaw fragment “belongs to one of the first populations that colonized Europe”.
The archaeological site of Atapuerca was inscribed in 2000 on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, giving it access to conservation funding from the United Nations.
It contains thousands of hominid fossils and tools, including a flint discovered in 2013 and 1.4 million years old.