One of the most enduring questions regarding the human past concerns the origins of our species. While we know Homo sapiens originated in Africa, we know very little about how our early ancestors came to colonise the rest of the world. Currently, the consensus view casts the earliest successful human dispersals out of Africa around 50 thousand years ago. Earlier human fossils from the Mediterranean oak woodlands of the Levant dating to about 171-90 thousand years ago have been argued to represent a ‘failed migration’, given the absence of further fossils beyond the Mediterranean woodland regions. In the Far East, the lack of a clear association between human fossils and dated sediments has cast doubt upon claims concerning the age of human occupation in these regions.
In 2016, we discovered a fossil human finger bone in the Nefud Desert of northern Saudi Arabia. Using a technique called Uranium-series laser ablation, we were able to date the bone to around 85 thousand years ago. This makes this finger bone the oldest directly dated human fossil outside Africa and the Levant. During this time, the Nefud region was not a desert, but a semi-arid grassland with lakes and rivers hosting species such as hippos. The presence of this finger bone some 400km away from the Mediterranean oak woodlands of the Levant, and in a completely different ecological context shows that our species’ earliest dispersals were much more widespread than first thought. The association between the finger bone and stone tools typical of this time period in Africa shows that no special technologies were innovated to aid dispersal.
Dr Eleanor Scerri is a Junior Research Fellow in Archaeology at Jesus College.