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400,000-year-old human cranium, oldest ever, found in Portugal

An international team of archeologists walked into a cave in 2014 and came out with a 400,000-year-old skull, the oldest human cranium fossil ever found in Portugal. Except, as most things having to do with scientific discovery, it wasn’t nearly that easy.

What the team, under the direction of Portuguese archaeologist João Zilhão, actually found was a solid block of sediment attached to the cranium. It took two years of painstaking work undertaken at the Centro de Investigacion sobre la Evolucion y Comportamiento Humanos, a paleoanthropology research center in Madrid, Spain, to finally bring the discovery to the full light of day.

The cranium, found at the cave of Aroeira, was found along with numerous stone tools, including handaxes, from the same era, the middle Pleistocene Epoch, according to the researchers.

“This is an interesting new fossil discovery from the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for understanding the origin and evolution of the Neandertals,” said Rolf Quam, an associate professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, State University of New York and member of the international team. “The Aroeira cranium is the oldest human fossil ever found in Portugal and shares some features with other fossils from this same time period in Spain, France and Italy.”

Zilhão applauded his team’s accomplishments. “I have been studying these sites for the last 30 years and we have recovered much important archaeological data, but the discovery of a human cranium of this antiquity and importance is always a very special moment,” he said.

The study, titled “New Middle Pleistocene hominin cranium from the Gruta da Aroeira (Portugal),” appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By David Searls, Staff Writer

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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