“Oldest” human skull discovered in Portuguese grotto

An international team of archeologists is celebrating the discovery of the oldest human fossil to be found in Portugal: a cranium (top part of the skull) dating back “around 400,000 years”.

Led by Portuguese João Zilhão and American anthropologist Ralph Quam, the team unearthed the fossil in a grotto in Aroeira, Torres Novas, in the centre of Portugal.

Amazingly, they found it on the last day of their field season, on a site that has been excavated for the last 30 years.

Said Zilhão: “It is a very special moment”

The find along with the results of this particular field study have been published this week in an American science bulletin.

As reports reveal, the cranium was actually ‘found’ in 2014. But it was in a “block of sediments” that had to be first taken to a centre of investigation in Madrid where specialists slowly managed to separate it over the course of two years.

For now, it is the “oldest human fossil” ever to be have been found in Portugal, “marking an important contribution to knowledge of human evolution during the middle Pleistocene in Europe and to the origin of the Neanderthals”.

What is even more interesting is that the Iberian Peninsula is seen as a “crucial region” for the understanding of the origin and evolution of Neanderthals, who are suddenly becoming the ‘flavour of the week’.

Only last Wednesday, international media was ‘buzzing’ with the news that Neanderthals used penicillin for tooth pain “nearly 50,000 years before the invention of penicillin”. That gem from prehistory came as a result of the study of human remains discovered in Spain.

But this week is the ‘moment’ for the 2014 field study led by Zilhão and Quam who thank all those who came before them.

“The results of this study are only possible thanks to the arduous work of numerous individuals over the last several years”, Quam explains. “This includes the archeologists who have excavated at the site for many years, the preparator who removed the fossil from its surrounding breccia, researchers who scanned the fossil and made virtual reconstructions, and the anthropologists who studied the fossil.

“This study truly represents an international scientific collaboration, and I feel fortunate to be involved in this research”.

[email protected]