for National Geographic News
A fossil tooth discovered last week in Spain belonged to the oldest known western European, scientists have announced.
The early-human molar was discovered last Wednesday at the Sierra Atapuerca archaeological site in the Burgos Province of northern Spain.
Caves at the site, which lies about 15 miles (25 kilometers) east of the provincial capital of Burgos, have previously yielded other prehistoric human remains (map of Spain).
Early human fossils found at the nearby Gran Dolina site in 1994 indicated that humans had occupied Europe as far back as 800,000 years ago—about 300,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Archaeologists from the Atapuerca Foundation who made the latest find say the tooth provides further evidence that the first ancestors of modern-day Europeans arrived earlier than believed.
The team notes that the tooth's age, dated at around 1.2 million years old, is similar to that of stone tools and animal fossils bearing human-tool cut marks uncovered at sites in Spain, France, and Italy.
"Now we finally have the anatomical evidence of the [early humans] that fabricated tools more than one million years ago," the team said in a statement.
(Related news: "Skull Is First Fossil Proof of Human Migration Theory, Study Says" [January 12, 2007].)
The researchers added that they are waiting for final analysis of the tooth before publishing their findings in a scientific journal.
Further fossils of the human have yet to be found, and there's a chance they never will, since teeth often preserve better than other skeletal remains.
"Since it is an isolated fossil remain, it is not possible at this point to confirm which Homo species this tooth belongs to," the team said.
However initial analyses "allow us to suppose it is an ancestor of Homo antecessor," they said.
Atapuerca Foundation researchers described the human species Homo antecessor—meaning "pioneer"—from fossils found in the 1990s that were dated back to 800,000 years ago.
Previously scientists had thought that Homo heidelbergensis, which appeared some 600,000 years ago, was Western Europe's earliest human resident.
(Explore an interactive map of human migration.)
Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, one of three experts leading the latest excavation, told the AFP news agency that the fossil appeared to be "well worn" and from an individual between 20 and 25.
Other fossils found at the same site included bones from bison, bears, deer, and a species of monkey.
Fossils of an extinct species of mouse found at the site helped the researchers to date the human tooth by providing a time frame during which the person likely lived.
The oldest evidence for humans in all of Europe comes from 1.7-million-year-old early human skulls unearthed at the Dmanisi site in Georgia that were first described in 2002.
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