Earliest human presence in Europe dated

Korolevo

View over the Korolevo quarry in western Ukraine. The oldest evidence of early humans in Europe was found here. © Roman Garba

For decades, the Korolevo archaeological site in western Ukraine has been considered an important site for early hominin artifacts. However, exactly how old she is was unclear for a long time. A study now dates Korolevo to be around 1.4 million years old. This makes the site the oldest evidence of early humans in Europe. The results support the hypothesis that Europe was populated from east to west. Our ancestors probably took advantage of warmer interglacial periods to settle regions at higher latitudes.

When did the first hominins come to Europe? This question still cannot be answered with certainty. The oldest reliably dated finds at the transition between Asia and Europe come from Dmanisi in Georgia and are around 1.85 million years old. In southwestern Europe, however, the oldest artifacts were found in Spain and southern France and dated to around 1.2 million years old. But what happened in between?

Stone tool
This hand ax comes from one of the oldest finds in Korolevo and could be around 1.4 million years old. © Roman Garba

Significant discovery site

A team led by Roman Garba from the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague is now providing an answer. The researchers examined the Korolevo archaeological site in western Ukraine in more detail and reliably dated it for the first time. “The stone tools from Korolevo have been studied by many research teams since the site was discovered in the 1970s,” explain Garba and his team. “However, although the importance of Korolevo for the European Paleolithic period is widely recognized, the ages of the lowest lithic artifacts have not yet been conclusively determined.”

Garba and his colleagues have now devoted themselves to this task. To do this, they used a dating method that is based on the decay of so-called cosmogenic nuclides. Cosmic rays produce rare isotopes of certain elements, including aluminum and boron. Over the course of thousands of years, these isotopes decay. The age of rock layers can therefore be derived from their ratio. In this way, the researchers came to the conclusion that the oldest early human artifacts in Korolevo are 1.4 million years old.

Early humans in Europe

“To our knowledge, Korolevo represents the earliest firmly dated hominin presence in Europe,” the team writes. “The site bridges the spatial and temporal gap between the 1.85 million year old finds in the Caucasus and those from southwest Europe around 1.2 million years ago. Our results support the hypothesis that Europe was populated from the east.”

In addition, the researchers analyzed the climatic conditions in Europe over the last two million years and compared them with the presumed migration conditions of early humans. “Our analysis of habitat suitability suggests that early hominins used warm interglacial periods to disperse to higher latitudes and relatively continental areas – such as Korolevo,” they report. “The settlement of Korolevo 1.4 million years ago therefore calls into question the assumption that hominins only moved to higher latitudes after the settlement of southern Europe 1.2 million years ago.”

Source: Roman Garba (Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague) et al., Nature, doi: 10.1038/s41586-024-07151-3

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