Study involving Czech scientists confirms first human presence in Europe 1.4 million years ago

The oldest known human settlement in Europe lies in western Ukraine. New findings by an international team of scientists have confirmed the oldest stone tools on the site date roughly 1.4 million years ago. The study, published in Nature, proves that the “first Europeans” entered the continent from the east. I discussed the findings with Roman Garba from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, who led the research team.

The archaeological site in Korolevo has been known for decades. Why have you only made the discovery now?

Lead author of the study Roman Garba with the Korolevo site in the background  (August 2023). | Photo: Roman Garba,  Czech Academy of Sciences

“The answer is quite simple. At that time — it was excavated 30 or 40 years ago — the dating methods which we applied, using cosmogenic nuclides, were not yet available. They only appeared around 20 years ago and in archaeology they have only been used for the past 10 or 15 years. So it was not possible to securely date these oldest archaeological layers.”

How exactly did you prove that the oldest known settlement site is at Korolevo?

“The site is located in a quarry, where they exposed a 12- to 14-meter- high profile of loess-paleosol [past soil layers preserved in a geologic section] with stone artefacts. The lowest, seventh layer, consisted of primitive stone tools.

“This layer was created there before the so-called paleo-magnetic reversal, which took place around 800,000 years ago. So it was clear that the bottom layer with the stone artefacts is around one million years old.

Stone artefact probably from the oldest layer VII of the loess and palaeo-soil profile at Korolevo I. Surface find  (2023). | Photo: Roman Garba,  Czech Academy of Sciences

“However, the artefacts themselves are made from volcanic materials which are not suitable for these dating methods. So we asked for quartzite and sandstone pebbles from the same layer, which were stored in a museum in Kyiv, and we then processed and measured them to calculate the age.”

Until now the earliest inhabited location was thought to be in  northern Spain. What do your findings tell us about the migration routes across Europe? Do they change our view or rather fill in the missing gaps in the picture?

“Obviously the picture is still very patchy. We only have a few sites. Most of them, around one million years old, are scattered around Spain, southern France and Italy. We have very little from central Eastern and south-eastern Europe. There is one site, called Kozarnika, in Bulgaria, and there are a few sites in Greece.

“So it is not easy to draw the dispersal routes and patterns. But with our secure dating of the site, which is midway between the previously known Atapuerca site in Spain (1.2 million years old) and Dmanisi in Georgia (1.8 million years old), we are filling both the spatial and temporal gap. We can also draw the first direction that the first people to Europe migrated from.”

What do we know about the people who lived at Korolevo 1.4 million years ago?

Archaeological site Korolevo I  (Gostry verkh) in 2007 | Photo: Vitalii Usyk,  Czech Academy of Sciences

“Obviously very little, because we don’t have any bones or fossil remains because the soil there is quite aggressive. We are not even sure what kind of human species lived there. But we assume, because of the age, that it was the Homo Erectus.

“What we know for sure is that they came there to quarry the material for stone tools, which they likely used for cutting the meat to cleaning the skins. They had been coming there for hundreds of thousands of years. We have evidence of human occupation from 1.4 million until 30,000 years ago. So this we know for sure.”

Author: Ruth Fraňková
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