1.4 million-year-old jawbone discover in Spain, that may be Europe’s earliest known human relative

Upper jawbone fossil found in Spain .

The fossil was discovered in June, Sima del Elefante (Pit of the Elephant in Spanish), an archeological site in the Atapuerca Mountains close to Burgos in northern Spain that is renowned for its extensive fossil collection. The researchers claimed contains a tooth and a portion of the upper jawbone (maxilla) of a hominid who lived around 1.4 million years ago. And that the fractured skull is thought to be the oldest of its kind ever discovered in Europe.

According to The Australian Museum, the term “hominid” refers to all current and extinct members of the human and great ape family tree, including modern humans and our earliest human ancestors, chimpanzees, and gorillas.

The earliest known hominid fossils discovered in Europe were 1.2 million years old when they were discovered at Sima del Elefante in 2008. According to a 2012 study published in the British Dental Journal, that discovery included multiple bone fragments and a section of a mandible, or the lower jawbone. The most recent discovery surprised experts, who had not expected to find fossils older than those already discovered at the location.

The upper jawbone, located approximately 6.5 feet (2 meters) deeper in the clay soil than the fossils found in 2008, was discovered by Édgar Téllez, a doctoral student at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution in Burgos. And that provides an estimate of the facial features of an individual who may be the earliest known ancient human relative in Europe.

Paleoanthropologists think the upper jawbone has traits that highlight the evolution of the human face, comparable to the previous fossilized discoveries.  “In this maxilla there is also a vertical projection, as in the mandible found in 2008, which could indicate that this modern face was already present at this time,” Téllez said.

In other words, according to the news published by Live Science, Téllez and his team theorize that the bone could be that of someone who was more closely related to modern-day Europeans than more ape-like primates, such as Homo habilis, an extinct species of archaic humans from Africa dating to the Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago).

According to a 1999 study published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the fossil may have come from Homo antecessor (Latin: “pioneer man”), whose position in the human family tree is debatable but who may be a near relative of contemporary humans and Neanderthals. (In 1994, the first fossilized remains of Homo antecessor were discovered in Atapuerca.)

Homo antecessor, Homo Habilis.

The new find, according to John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the current excavation, sheds light on the population that once lived in this region. “We don’t know yet exactly where this piece of the upper jaw is going to fit, and it’s going to take a lot of work and comparison for that team to determine.” Hawks said.

“But whatever they determine, this is tied to a site with evidence of behavior. And every piece that we have that’s tied to a site with evidence of behavior, such as making stone tools or hunting, tells us the behavioral capacities of ancestors and relatives of ours. For me, that’s the important part.”

The experts at the site stated that more research is needed to identify the exact age of the upper jawbone and whether it is related to the other fossils discovered there.