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In 1871, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins, including both modern and extinct humans, descended from a group in Africa–a hypothesis now under review. Recent findings in the field of paleoanthropology continue to challenge our understanding of the origins of humanity. The traditional “out of Africa” theory posits that humans evolved in Africa and migrated outwards, but recent discoveries in Europe suggest that the origins of mankind may be more complex than previously thought. Three recent studies, one conducted in 2020 and the others in 2023, provide evidence that hominins may have first evolved in Europe before migrating to Africa. While further research will be needed to provide clarity and a more conclusive understanding of the evolution of our species out of Europe, these studies impel important questions and give cause for excitement about new theories about the origins of human life.

In January 2020, Ancient Origins reported on a new analysis of two 7.2 million-year-old fossils from Mediterranean Europe which gives rise to the notion that mankind may have evolved in Europe and not in Africa, and could therefore challenge the “out of Africa” theory. For decades, it has been thought that every living human being is descended from a small group in Africa, who then displaced earlier groups such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. However, researchers studying the ancient fossils of a tooth and lower jawbone suggest that modern humans may have instead emerged in the eastern Mediterranean. The fossils belonged to Graecopithecus freybergi, which is believed to be the oldest known pre-human, dating back as far as 7.2 million years. “El Graeco” is the oldest-known potential hominin and is several hundred thousand years older than the oldest potential pre-human from Africa: the 6 to 7-million-year-old Sahelanthropus from Chad. While still referred to as hominin or pre-human because its last common ancestor of modern humans and chimps retained both non-human primate and human characteristics, scientists examining the Graecopithecus’ fossils discovered distinct human-like features within them. Anthropologists noticed that its roots had evolved into modern human-like forms, like that of Ardipithecus and Australopithecus. If Graecopithecus turns out to be a human, it could be the oldest human ancestor known and the first to be identified outside of Africa.

Then in June 2023, the Greek Reporter also covered a story about a new analysis of the remains of an ape found in Greece 20 years ago, which also suggest that human ancestors evolved in southeastern Europe, instead of Africa. The nine-thousand-year-old fossils were originally attributed to the extinct ape Ouranopithecus, but a team led by Professor David Begun from the University of Toronto’s Department of Anthropology has recently re-inspected the upper and lower jaw of the ancient and suggested they likely belong to a new species. that may have evolved in Europe before migrating to Africa, further upending the accepted scientific consensus. While the team does not propose the ape found is a hominin, they do speculate that it could represent the group from which hominins directly evolved. In 2017, the same team determined the Graecopithecus ape, which also lived in Greece, could be a hominin. If correct, their conclusion suggests the Nikiti ape would have directly preceded hominins in the region, which migrated to Africa seven million years ago. While the theory is controversial and likely to be rejected by many experts, Begun suggests it should at least be given serious consideration, as the ancestors of the giraffe and rhino, all species indigenous to Africa today, established themselves in southeastern Europe millions of years before migration to Africa.

And now, the discovery of an Anadoluvius turkae, a partial skull of an ancient ape in Cankiri, Turkey, adds even more weight to this new “out of Europe” theory. The skull appears to be about 8.7 million years old, suggesting that hominins might have first evolved in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially after changing environments and declining forests. Professor Begun, also the co-senior author of this study, believes that these findings suggest that hominins spent over five million years evolving in Europe before migrating to the eastern Mediterranean before eventually moving to Africa between nine and seven million years ago, along with many other mammals. He stresses, however, that further fossil evidence will be required to demonstrate this theory. In addition to the importance of this ancient ape discovery in Turkey, it is significant that the skull was only recently discussed and published in the journal Communications Biology, despite its discovery as far basck as 2015. Why did it take so long to publish these findings? Inquiring minds need to know. Anyhow, along with the Graecopithecus freybergi fossils found in Mediterranean Europe and other discoveries of extinct apes and hominins around the world, the study demonstrates a growing body of evidence suggesting that the longstanding narrative surrounding humanity’s origins is at least questionable.

All things considered, it seems the field of paleoanthropology is witnessing a growing hypothesis that human evolution may have begun in Europe rather than Africa, challenging traditional notions. These recent studies of ancient fossils have revealed distinct human-like features and laid an explosive foundation suggested that hominins may have migrated from Europe to Africa, instead of the other way around. The more recent discovery of an Anadoluvius turkae partial skull in Turkey adds even further weight to this hypothesis, pushing back the emergence of hominins in Europe by around a million years before they even appeared in Africa. While the debate among researchers is likely to continue, the possibility of humanity’s European origins is an exciting prospect that raises significant questions about the history of our species, and inspires further investigation.

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