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Abstract

The earliest hominin occupation of Europe is one of the most debated topics in palaeoanthropology. However, the purportedly oldest of the Early Pleistocene sites in Eurasia lack precise age control and contain stone tools rather than human fossil remains1,2,3,4,5. Here we report the discovery of a human mandible associated with an assemblage of Mode 1 lithic tools and faunal remains bearing traces of hominin processing, in stratigraphic level TE9 at the site of the Sima del Elefante, Atapuerca, Spain6,7,8. Level TE9 has been dated to the Early Pleistocene (approximately 1.2–1.1 Myr), based on a combination of palaeomagnetism, cosmogenic nuclides and biostratigraphy. The Sima del Elefante site thus emerges as the oldest, most accurately dated record of human occupation in Europe, to our knowledge. The study of the human mandible suggests that the first settlement of Western Europe could be related to an early demographic expansion out of Africa. The new evidence, with previous findings in other Atapuerca sites (level TD6 from Gran Dolina9,10,11,12,13), also suggests that a speciation event occurred in this extreme area of the Eurasian continent during the Early Pleistocene, initiating the hominin lineage represented by the TE9 and TD6 hominins.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge all the members of the Atapuerca research team involved in the recovery and study of the archaeological and palaeontological record from Sima del Elefante, and C. Lorenzo for the supervision of the fossils. We thank J. Mestre and S. Sarmiento for the hominin pictures and photomontage, and J.M. Carretero, E. Santos and L. Rodríguez for their supervision and scanning of the mandible. We also thank R. Quam for reviewing the English version. S. Antón, F. Spoor and I. Tattersall provided comments on the manuscript. This research was sponsored by Junta de Castilla y León, Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia grant DGI CGL2006-13532-C03, GC ARAGOB 2007, NSF grant EAR 0452936 and a Fundación Atapuerca grant (R.H., M.N.).

Author Contributions E.C., J.M.B. de C. and J.L.A. directed the excavations and the research project. Authors contributed in the following areas: A.P-G., J.V. and A.B., geology, sedimentology and micromorphology; J.M.P., D.E.G. and G.M.S., geochronology; G.C.-B., J. van der M. and N.G., palaeontology of micro- and macromammals; E.C., A.O., M.M., R.S., X.P.R., J.M.V. and M.N., stone tool technology; R.H., I.C., C.D., A.M. and J. Ros., zooarchaeology; J.M.B. de C., A.R., M.M.-T., M.L. and J.L.A., palaeoanthropology; A.C., archaeostratigraphy; E.A., F.B. and J. Rod., palaeoecology. Unless indicated, J.M.B. de C. took the measurements of hominin fossils for Table 1. A.O. and M.M. edited and coordinated the manuscript.

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Affiliations

  1. Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social, Àrea de Prehistòria, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Plaça Imperial Tarraco 1, 43005 Tarragona, Spain

    • Eudald Carbonell
    • , Andreu Ollé
    • , Marina Mosquera
    • , Rosa Huguet
    • , Robert Sala
    • , Josep Vallverdú
    • , Xosé P. Rodríguez
    • , Josep M. Vergès
    • , Ethel Allué
    • , Francesc Burjachs
    • , Isabel Cáceres
    • , Antoni Canals
    • , Marina Lozano
    •  & Jordi Rosell
  2. Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre Evolución Humana, Avenida de la Paz 28, 09004 Burgos, Spain

    • José M. Bermúdez de Castro
    • , Josep M. Parés
    • , Alfredo Pérez-González
    • , María Martinón-Torres
    • , Ana Mateos
    •  & Jesús Rodríguez
  3. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Michigan, 2534 CCL Building, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA

    • Josep M. Parés
    •  & Greg M. Stock
  4. Departamento de Geodinámica, Facultad de Ciencias Geológicas, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 28040 Madrid, Spain

    • Alfredo Pérez-González
    •  & Alfonso Benito
  5. Área de Paleontología, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Zaragoza, c/ Pedro Cerbuna, 12, 50009 Zaragoza, Spain

    • Gloria Cuenca-Bescós
  6. Departamento de Paleobiología, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, C.S.I.C., José G. Abascal 2, 28006 Madrid, Spain

    • Jan van der Made
    •  & Antonio Rosas
  7. Departamento de Paleontología, Facultad de Ciencias Geológicas, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 28040 Madrid, Spain

    • Nuria García
    •  & Juan L. Arsuaga
  8. Centro de Investigación (UCM-ISCIII) de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos, c/ Sinesio Delgado, 4 (Pabellón 14), 28029 Madrid, Spain

    • Nuria García
    •  & Juan L. Arsuaga
  9. Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, USA

    • Darryl E. Granger
  10. Yosemite National Park, 5083 Foresta Road, PO Box 700, El Portal, California 95318, USA

    • Greg M. Stock
  11. Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats, Plaça Imperial Tarraco 1, 43005 Tarragona, Spain

    • Francesc Burjachs
  12. Laboratorio de Prehistoria, Edificio I+D+i, Universidad de Burgos, Plaza Misael Bañuelos s/n, 09001 Burgos, Spain

    • Carlos Díez
    •  & Marta Navazo

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