Archeologists uncover oldest human skull outside of Africa

Prof. Yoel Rak of Tel Aviv University and an international research team announced the archeological discovery of the oldest human skull ever found outside of Africa, in a paper printed in the journal Science on Thursday.

By HENRY ROME
October 18, 2013 00:40
2 minute read.
PROF. YOEL RAK (left) of Tel Aviv University.

PROF. YOEL RAK (left) of Tel Aviv University 370. (photo credit: Avishag Ginzburg)

 
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Prof. Yoel Rak of Tel Aviv University and an international research team announced the archeological discovery of the oldest human skull ever found outside of Africa, in a paper printed in the journal Science on Thursday.

Rak and a team from Switzerland, the US and Georgia said they found a nearly intact skull of Homo georgicus. The researchers believe the skull, found in the Republic of Georgia, is 1.8 million years old.

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“The most important thing about the skull is actually that it bridges one of the gaps in the fossil record,” Rak said.

“In this sense it’s a fantastic find, because it fits the place both anatomically and chronologically.”

Indeed, the dating of the skull indicates it belonged to an early human between the existence of Homo habilis and Homo erectus. The find is especially significant, Rak said, not because it challenges the conventional wisdom among researchers, but because it demonstrates what scholars had hypothesized about the development of the brain in early humans leaving Africa.

“As the brain started to expand, we at least hypothesized that this allowed hominid populations to leave Africa and to expand all over,” he said. “If Darwin is indeed right, this is exactly what you should expect.”

The skull had a tiny brain – about a third the size of human brains today – but it had a giant mandible, giving the skull a look akin to an ape, he said.



The process of studying the skull combined both sophisticated imaging technology and classic low-tech analysis. After the skull was cleaned, it was sent to Switzerland, where it underwent a CT scan that allowed Rak and the international team to run statistical analyses about the structure of the skull. To complement the computerized analysis, Rak said he would sit in a national museum in Georgia and study by hand other fossils.

In the end, Rak and his team found an important bridge in the understanding of human evolution.

Rak was summoned to the country of Georgia two years ago after a team of archeologists accidentally came across the skull while excavating a medieval village. It was Rak’s job to carefully separate the skull from the surrounding rock and sediment, and he used a microscope to ensure he did not damage it.

“I tell my students in one of my courses that human evolution is very much like a celluloid film, with a lot of frames,” he said. “We provide the proof of human evolution by providing a movie that runs in a coherent way. We still have a lot of these empty frames, but we are working hard.”

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