Finger bone points to new insight on human migration

Excavating at Al Wusta

Study co-researcher Iyad Zalmout, a paleontologist with the Saudi Geological Survey, found the remarkable 1.3-inch-long (3.2 centimeters) fossil finger in the Nefud Desert in 2016, said study lead researcher Huw Groucutt, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford in England.

It was an intermediate phalanx, the bone between a fingertip and finger knuckle. "Still, I doubt whether anyone can identify a single isolated finger bone as a modern human, as opposed to any other form of hominin", such as Neandertal, he says.

They were able to date the bone directly, using precise techniques that rely on the decay of radioactive uranium. These ratios revealed that the fossil was 88,000 years old.

Scientists once thought that humans moved out of Africa within a single period of about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago.

However, that story has looked increasingly shaky due to a series of finds in the Levant: the area east of the Mediterranean that includes countries like Israel and Syria.

Findings show that humans first emerged in Africa 260,000 to 350,000 years ago.

It indicates that early human migrations may have happened more frequently than previously thought, and that our ancestors may have gone to regions scientists hadn't suspected. But at what point people traveled farther than that has been hard to pin down.

Because of this uncertainty, the Al Wusta finger bone is the oldest confirmed remnant of a modern human found outside Africa and the Levant.




Previously, it was believed that early migrations were limited to the Levant and any attempts to go further into Eurasia were unsuccessful.

The exhumation began at Al Wusta.

People may have settled Arabia at this early date because it was an appealing place to live.

In 2014, they discovered a site named Al Wusta in Saudi Arabia's arid Nefud Desert that once sat on the banks of a large freshwater lake.

However, even though the finger bone is much younger than the jawbone, it's still a momentous find, Groucutt said.

"What we're arguing here is that there were multiple dispersals out of Africa, so the process of the movement and the colonisation of Eurasia was far more complicated than our textbooks tell us", said study co-author Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. "It has major implications with respect to how our species came out of Africa and the route and the pathways that they took out of Africa". From here, they successfully migrated to Asia and then the rest of the world. "Or could they have travelled across or around the Red Sea into Arabia, and then directly accessed Iran via the Persian Gulf, when sea levels were periodically lower during the last Ice Age?"

Some have tried to reconcile these findings with the late-exodus narrative by claiming there may have been an early, but ultimately doomed, first wave migration out of Africa some 120,000 years ago, after which humans more or less stayed put on the continent for another 60,000 years.

"The Al Wusta research adds support to the notion that there were numerous, perhaps almost continuous, pulses of Homo sapiens dispersals from Africa, and that regional moist episodes may have triggered the dispersals", says Donald Henry of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

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