for National Geographic News
Europe's first early human colonizers were from Asia, not Africa, a new analysis of more than 5,000 ancient teeth suggests.
Researchers had traditionally assumed that Europe was settled in waves starting around two million years ago, as our ancient ancestors—collectively known as hominids—came over from Africa.
But the shapes of teeth from a number of hominid species suggest that arrivals from Asia played a greater role in colonizing Europe than hominids direct from Africa.
These Asian hominids may have originally come from Africa, the scientists note, but had evolved independently for some time.
(Related: "Did Early Humans First Arise in Asia, Not Africa?" [December 27, 2005].)
"Asia was also an important center for hominid speciation," said Maria Martinón-Torres, a scientist at the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, who led the study.
The finding suggests that the hominid family tree could be much more complex than previously thought (explore an interactive atlas of human migration).
Species from the genus Australopithecus and the genus Homo arrived in Europe between two million and 300,000 years ago.
Until recently, a lack of fossils from this time period had made it difficult to piece together hominid evolution and migration patterns.
But using the latest fossil findings, Martinón-Torres and colleagues were able to examine more than 5,000 teeth from two-million-year-old Australopithecus and Homo skeletons from Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The shape of the teeth offered clues about each species' genetic lineages.
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