A study touts that a 400,000-year-old skull unearthed in Portugal may be the oldest human skull on Earth.

A large team of researchers led by João Zilhão, a Portuguese archaeologist, and Rolf Quam, an anthropologist with Binghamton University, discovered the skull, making the event an important part of history of human evolution.

The hominin skull reportedly has a few telltale features which suggest that it falls more in the Neanderthal category than the Homo Sapiens one. The skull was discovered in a Portuguese cave and is now used by the anthropologists to determine how hominins, Neanderthals in particular, evolved during the middle Pleistocene epoch in Europe.

Along with the skull, the researchers also discovered stone-made hand axes, animal remains and human teeth.

Prize Find In Portuguese Caves

The skull is the only representative of the westernmost human fossil to be ever discovered in Europe. Compared with other skulls hailing from the same time period, which were dated poorly or lacked a clear archaeological context, this skull was properly dated — ranging back to 400,000 years.

"This is an interesting new fossil discovery from the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for understanding the origin and evolution of the Neandertals," said Quam.

He further added that the cranium which was found in the cave of Aroeira is the oldest human fossil that has been excavated to date, and has some common features with other fossils from the same time period that have been found in Spain, Italy and France.

Quam also said that with the discovery of the Aroeria skull, the anatomical diversity of human fossil records of that time have increased to a great extent. It suggests that different populations of ancient humans displayed somewhat different combinations of features among themselves.

Discovery Of The Skull

The team discovered the skull buried at the back of the cave, firmly cemented to the sediments containing the cranium.

"The archaeologists, when they found it, weren't sure how to get it out. They basically had to use a circular saw to cut out a huge block chunk that included the skull," said Quam to Live Science.

The skull was then moved to Centro de Investigacion sobre la Evolucion y Comportamiento Humanos, a restoration laboratory and paleoanthropology research center in Madrid, Spain. The extraction of the skull from the cemented block took two years to complete as it was a tough and difficult process.

The skull will be publicly exhibited at the human evolution section of Museu Nacional de Arqueologia in Lisbon, Portugal in October this year.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title "New Middle Pleistocene hominin cranium from the Gruta da Aroeira (Portugal)" on March 13.

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