The ancestors of modern Europeans and Asians migrated from Africa 50,000 years earlier than scientists previously believed, according to new archaeological evidence that challenges the established view of how humans populated the world.
An international research team says the Jebel Faya site in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, was occupied 125,000 years ago by modern humans, who had crossed into Arabia at the southern end of the Red Sea. The crossing then was just a few kilometres wide, with sea levels 100 metres lower than today.
The conventional view has been that Homo sapiens migrated from Africa about 70,000 years ago, taking a more northerly route along the Mediterranean coast.
The new evidence, presented in the journal Science, relies on a range of stone tools excavated at Jebel Faya, which can be dated to 125,000 BC by a technique called optically stimulated luminescence.
The archeologists say they are almost identical to tools that have been found in sites of human habitation of about the same age in north-east Africa. Arabia was much wetter then than it is today, with lush grasslands and plentiful lakes and rivers.
“These ‘anatomically modern’ humans – like you and me – had evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and subsequently populated the rest of the world,” said Simon Armitage of Royal Holloway, University of London. “Our findings should stimulate a re-evaluation of the means by which we modern humans became a global species.”
According to the conventional view, after reaching the Middle East 70,000 years ago, ancestral modern humans spread fast through Europe and Asia. Neanderthals and other hominids were already living there as the result of earlier migrations out of Africa.
The new evidence would allow Homo sapiens to have made a more leisurely journey through south Asia to Australia, which was populated about 50,000 years ago by ancestors of today’s Aboriginals.
Although the Jebel Faya research appears in one of the world’s leading peer-review journals, some independent palaeontologists will need more evidence to back up the team’s controversial claims.
Mark Beech, of the University of York, who has extensive archaeological experience in the UAE, praised the paper but added: “One site does not confirm the out-of-Africa-via-Arabia hypothesis.”
Hans-Peter Uerpmann, of the University of Tübingen, the project leader, agreed that fossilised human bones would be needed “before we can be absolutely sure” that the Jebel Faya tools were made by Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, he said, bones do not survive well in the harsh conditions there.
But archeologists will be scouring caves and other potential sites of habitation in the Arabian peninsula for years to come, looking for more evidence of passing human bands.