Oldest human presence in Europe found in Ukraine

The oldest firmly dated evidence of human ancestors in Europe has been found at a 1.4-million-year-old site in Ukraine.

Hominins – the group that includes humans, extinct human relatives and our direct ancestors – are believed to have made it into Eurasia 1 to 2 million years ago. But nailing down the precise timeline and direction of travel out of Africa has proven difficult due to scarce fossil remains from this period.

Finding the oldest evidence of ancient humans in Ukraine helps build a better picture of migration into Eurasia.

The findings from Ukraine are detailed in a study published in Nature.

The archaeological site at Korolevo, 600km southwest of Kiev in Ukraine, is among the most northern examples of early Palaeolithic (Early Stone Age) sites in the world, but its exact age has been a mystery until now.

Black and white photograph from 1980s of an archaeological site dig
Archive photo from the 1984-1985 Transcarpathian Palaeolithic Expedition at Korolevo. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

Palaeolithic stone tools have been found at the Korolevo site since the 1970s.

Researchers analysed the sediment around where the stone tools were buried. They examined the cosmogenic nuclides in the rocks. Cosmogenic nuclides are rare forms of atomic nuclei formed because of bombardment by high-energy rays from space.

Using this technique, they were able to determine that the Korolevo tools were buried about 1.42 million years ago.

It is assumed that the tools belonged to Homo erectus.

The authors say their findings bridge a gap between other ancient human finds in the Caucus (1.85–1.78 million years ago) and southwestern Europe (1.2–1.1 million years ago).

This supports the hypothesis that ancient humans entered Europe from the east, not via a land bridge to what is today the Iberian peninsula or across the sea to southern Europe.

Ancient human stone hand tool
Stone tool from Korolevo. Credit: Roman Garba.

Also included was an analysis of habitat changes over the past 2 million years. The authors write  their study “suggests that early hominins exploited warm interglacial periods to disperse into higher latitudes and sites such as Korolevo well before the Middle Pleistocene Transition (MPT).”

The MPT saw a shift in the cycle of “Ice Ages” from 40,000 years to 100,000 years.

Because of climatic shifts over the years, the authors say this could be the farthest north early hominin site that we are likely to find.

“We note that there is a low likelihood of finding early European hominin sites even farther north—not because they did not exist, but because the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet extended as far south as the Carpathians on at least two occasions in the last half a million years,” they write. “Early hominin sites farther north are likely either to be destroyed or to lie deeply buried.”

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