TBILISI, Georgia – Archaeologists in the former Soviet republic of Georgia have unearthed a skull they say is 1.8 million years old — part of a find that holds the oldest traces of humankind's closest ancestors ever found in Europe.
The skull from an early member of the genus Homo was found Aug. 6 and unearthed Sunday in Dmanisi (search), an area about 60 miles southeast of the capital, Tbilisi, said David Lortkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum, who took part in the dig.
In total, five bones or fragments believed to be about the same age have been found in the area, including a jawbone discovered in 1991, Lortkipanidze said by telephone. The skull, however, was in the best condition of the five, and was sent to the museum for further study.
"Practically all the remains have been found in one place. This indicates that we have found a place of settlement of primitive people," he said of the spot, where archaeologists have been working since 1939.
Researchers said the findings in Georgia were about 1 million years older than any widely accepted pre-human remains in Western Europe and were the oldest found outside Africa. The discoveries have provided additional evidence that human ancestors left Africa a half-million years or more earlier than scientists had previously thought.
A well-preserved skull from the Dmanisi site would be "very important" in helping to track the development and migration of human ancestors, said Brian Richmond, a professor at the Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology (search) at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Study of the skull could help scientists understand "what it is about these individuals that allowed them to move outside of Africa" — how their bodies and tool-use advanced to enable them to move more freely, Richmond said.
It could also help determine the species of the remains at the site, Homo erectus or Homo habilis, he said.
Million-year-old fossils of hominids (search) — extinct creatures of the extended ancestral family of modern humans — have been found in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, but not in Western Europe. Georgia is south of the Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea and northeast of Turkey, but is considered part of Europe.
Previously, Lortkipanidze's discoveries of bone fragments contradicted a theory among anthropologists that the primitive humans who left Africa were big, well-armed and smart. The human-like specimens that Lortkipanidze found were smaller and slender with a smaller brain, but still capable of making stone tools.
The Dmanisi site is located between two rivers. Researchers also have found a wealth of animal remains from the same period, including elephants, gazelles, rhinos, sabre-toothed cats, giraffes, bears, ostriches, wolves and rodents.