The Aroeira cranium is an important contribution to the knowledge of human evolution in Europe’s Middle Pleistocene and the origins of the Neanderthal peoples.
The Aroeira 3 fossil belongs to the Acheulean culture, originated in Africa more than a million years ago.
An international team of palaeontologists, led by Professor João Zilhão, from the University of Barcelona, has found a new fossil of a human cranium in the Grauta de Aroeira (Portugal), dated from 400.000 years ago –which significantly increases the known diversity of this period of human evolution.
This new fossil, named Aroeira 3, opens a new reference framework in palaeontology on the study of the appearance of morphological features to discover human evolution over this essential period in which, starting from the ancestral Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the modern man emerged.
The new paleontological discovery, published on the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has been carried out by a scientific team of the Archaeology Center of the University of Lisbon (UNIARQ), in the program of archaeological excavations carried out since 1987 under the supervision of the ICREA researcher João Zilhão (UB), from the Seminar on Prehistoric Studies and Research (SERP) of the University of Barcelona. Since 2013, the research team has counted with the participation of other experts from SERP (UB). Other distinguished authors of the discovery are the experts Joan Daura (UNIARQ and SERP-UB), and Juan Luis Arsuaga, Montserrat Sanz, Maricruz Ortega and Elena Santos (Complutense University of Madrid), among others.
The new fossil, from the base of the stratigraphic sequencing of the site in Gruta de Aroeira, was found associated with fire remains (burned bones), with hunted animals by the cave’s inhabitants and with abundant tools of flint and quartzite, among which were bifaces (handaxes). Thanks to the uranium-series method, dating this cranium has been more precise than in other fossils of this period.
According to Professor João Zilhão, “the Aroeira 3 fossil, belongs to the Acheulean culture, originated in Africa more than a million years ago but from which there are no remains in Europe until at least 500.000 years ago. Together with the remains from Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca) and Tautavel (France), the Aroeira cranium seems to be one of the first Acheulean populations in Europe”.
“In this context –continues João Zilhão- the Aroeira 3 cranium is a discovery of big importance. The combination of features seen in Aroeira 3 is unique and it significantly increases the known diversity. This period of the human evolution might have been, thus, a more complex process than what it was thought so far. In conclusion, it is clearer that, regarding the diagnostic features, we cannot rule out “types” or “species” in this phase of the human evolution. Therefore, everything points out that 500.000 years ago, humanity constituted only one species already although it was more diverse than nowadays.