MADRID, July 8 (Xinhua) -- Paleontologists working at the world famous Atapuerca prehistoric archaeological site in northern Spain announced the discovery on Friday of what they described as the "face of the first European."
They said the facial bones they had unearthed come from a member of the Homo genus (although they are unsure of what species) and are between 1.2 million and 1.4 million years old.
Although several human fossils have already been unearthed at Atapuerca -- among them remains of Homo antecessor ("pioneer man," an archaic human species) -- none have been this old. The new discovery comes from a period with little evidence of human inhabitants in Europe.
Scientists hope that the find will help them identify the first human species that colonized Europe with certainty.
The fossil was found at the Sima del Elefante (Elephant Hill) dig site on June 30 by a team led by Edgar Tellez, a doctoral student at the Spanish National Center for Human Evolution (CENIEH). It consists of a cheekbone and a maxilla (upper jaw).
The bones were officially presented to the public in the city of Burgos by the three co-directors of Atapuerca (Juan Luis Arsuaga, Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro and Eudald Carbonell) as well as by Rosa Huguet, coordinator of the Sima del Elefante site, and Gonzalo Santonja, minister of culture of the Castilla y Leon region.
"This discovery will probably help us to know the species that colonized Europe," Carbonell said, explaining that although there could have been earlier human inhabitants in Europe, they had not established permanent populations.
Arsuaga said the fossil would "force us to rewrite the books on human evolution" as they "push back the human presence in Europe and show us that things we thought appeared at the end of evolution(such as the modern face) arose at the beginning." ■