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Fossil finger from Saudi Arabia challenges migration theory

The first early human migration out of Africa and into Eurasia may have been much more widespread than previously thought according to a new fossil discovery in Saudi Arabia

It is the oldest fossil belonging to homo sapien found outside of Africa and the Levant (a historical region encompassing what is now Syria), and the first ancient human fossil discovered in Saudi Arabia.

Scientists believe early people left Africa a few times after evolving there at least 300,000 years ago.

"These dried lake beds are being exposed by the moving sand dunes, so they're just literally lying on the surface, it's just a matter of looking around and seeing what we can find", Dr Louys said.

An global research team, including Oxford University scientists and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, has been scouring the region's ancient lake beds for signs of what life was like tens of thousands of years ago. Although it's a desert zone now, 90,000 years ago, the site was on the bank of a freshwater lake.

"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", said lead author Dr. Huw Groucutt, from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. 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. This would make it the oldest human fossil found outside Africa and the Levant.

Until recently, evidence including genetic studies suggested that Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and into Eurasia in a single, rapid wave about 60,000 years ago.

"But here we've dated both the deposits and the fossil finger bone directly", Petraglia said. Their hunch paid off 2 years later, when study co-author and paleontologist Iyad Zalmout of the Saudi Geological Survey in Jeddah found a small bone stuck in the sediment.

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

"He picked up the bone", Petraglia recalled, "and he immediately recognized it as human". It's 3.2 centimeters long and was probably was part of a middle finger. Researchers bored a microscopic hole into it with a laser and measured traces of radioactive elements within.

These findings were outlined in a study published in the journal "Nature Ecology and Evolution". Crucially, said Groucutt, these stone tools were of an "old-fashioned" type, countering the idea that human migration beyond the Levant was driven by our species developing better technology, with evidence of an ancient lake highlighting that the dispersal was at least partly driven by a changing climate.

The team recognised the bone as human on sight, and later confirmed this by comparing it to finger bones of other humans, extinct hominins like Neanderthals, and other primates such as gorillas.

Researchers think that it ties many of those previous finds together, by showing that humans could have spread across the planet, as far as eastern Asia, long before the conventional narrative believed possible.

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. During this period they scoured the region for signs of early humans, seeing it as a natural "stepping stone" for humans leaving Africa.

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