'Ancient finger bone pushes back human migration from Africa'

Petraglia shows six different views of a Homo sapiens fossil finger bone from the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. Researchers say the bone provides a new clue about when and how our species migrated out of Afri

A fossil of a middle finger found in Saudi Arabia is the oldest human fossil found outside of Africa and the Levant.

The finding shows there were multiple dispersals out of Africa, and they had spread further than previously known.

"These animals tell us that when humans were living there, it was not a desert", said first author Huw Groucutt, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford.

Several competing theories explain when and by what routes our earliest ancestors migrated out of Africa after they evolved there as early as 300,000 years ago.

The ancient fossils ever found was 120,000 years old, found in China but their human origin was not dated precisely so far.

"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".

In the Fuyan Cave, for instance, teeth were found among mineral deposits that were at least 80,000 years old. Others have argued there were several migrations in and out of Africa throughout this whole period.

"They're coming up against animals that they've never seen before; environments they've never seen before", he said. But over the last decade, scientists have uncovered evidence that suggests the mass exodus was preceded by earlier, smaller migrations out of Africa, some as far back as 180,000 years ago, forcing researchers to revamp the story of human evolution.

85,000 years ago, the Al Wusta site was rich grassland covered by permanent freshwater lakes, as Arabia's climate was wetter than it is now.

Numerous fossils were discovered at the site of Al Wusta, an ancient fresh-water lake located in what is now the hyper-arid Nefud Desert. Dozens of sharpened stone tools buried in the sediment hinted that it might be a special place. That's because humans have long and thin fingers compared with Neanderthals, who were also alive at that time, he said.

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"He picked up the bone", Petraglia recalled, "and he immediately recognised it as human".

It was an intermediate phalanx, the bone between a fingertip and finger knuckle.

It remains unclear whether the Homo sapiens at Al Wusta arrived via the Levant, by crossing the Red Sea or by going around the Red Sea's southern end - an idea supported by Donald Henry from the University of Tulsa in an accompanying article. Professional anatomists analyzed 3D scans of the bone and concluded that it was a match for our own species, rather than another early hominins such as Neandertals or a member of Australopithecus.

The age of the fossil was dated using a technique called uranium series dating, which involves etching microscopic holes in the fossil with a laser and measuring the ratio between tiny traces of radioactive elements.

This 2016 photo provided by Michael Petraglia shows a general view of the excavations at the Al Wusta archaeological site in Saudi Arabia.

The finger bone likely belonged to an adult, but it's unclear if that individual was a man or a woman, he added.

It was a scrap of finger bone, little more than an inch long, lying unnoticed amid a desert the size of Ireland.

Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, agrees, noting there's so much anatomical overlap between hominin species that she'd like to see additional fossils confirm it.

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

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