Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News small text large text
Oct. 31, 2006 — Caves in southeastern Italy have yielded evidence of the earliest human settlement in Europe, fueling a long-running debate over when the European continent was first colonized.
Found in soil layers at the site of Pirro Nord in Puglia, the evidence consists of sophisticated tools and a large amount of vertebrate fossils.
Dating of sediment layers showed that the artifacts range from between 1.7 and 1.3 million years old, report Giulio Pavia, a paleontologist at Turin University, and colleagues in a forthcoming issue of the German journal Naturwissenschaften.
"The artifacts represent the earliest known evidence of human ancestors in Europe. The way they were made reveals rather sophisticated technical abilities, and most likely they were used as tools for chopping and scraping carcasses," Pavia told Discovery News.
The oldest clear record of our human ancestors' journey out of Africa has been found in the Caucasus, which are commonly reckoned as a dividing line between Asia and Europe. Five skulls, dating to 1.8 million years ago were found in Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia.
In Asia, 1.6 to 1.7 million-year-old remains in China and 1.8 million-year-old remains in Indonesia, suggest that hominids colonized eastern and southeastern parts of the continent very quickly.
The first colonization of Europe, however, has remained a matter of continuous debate.
Until the mid 1990's, it was widely believed that hominids arrived in Europe around 500,000 years ago, after traveling across the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa.
But findings of human remains and tools at various sites in Spain, dating from either 800,000 years ago or 1.2 and 1.3 million years ago, suggested that Europe's colonization occurred much earlier.
"In this context, the very important finding at Pirro represents the first clear data suggesting that the first arrival of humans to Europe was probably contemporaneous to the colonization of Asia at the base of the Early Pleistocene," said Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, a professor of prehistory at the University of Tarragona, Spain