Archaeologists in the former Soviet republic of Georgia have unearthed a skull they say is 1.8 million years old, representing part of a find that holds the oldest traces of humanity's closest ancestors ever found in Europe.
The Homo erectus skull was found this month in Dmanisi, an area about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of the capital, Tbilisi, said Georgian National Museum director David Lortkipanidze, who took part in the dig.
In total, five bones or fragments believed to be about the same age have been found in the area, including a jawbone discovered in 1991, Lortkipanidze said by telephone. The skull, however, was in the best condition of the five. It was unearthed on Sunday and sent to the museum for further study.
"Practically all the remains have been found in one place. This indicates that we have found a place of settlement of primitive people," he said of the spot, where archaeologists have been working since 1939.
The findings in Georgia, which researchers said were a million years older than any widely accepted pre-human remains in Europe, have provided additional evidence that Homo erectus left Africa a half-million years or more earlier than scientists had previously thought.
A well-preserved skull from the Dmanisi site would be "very important" in helping to track the development and migration of human ancestors, said Brian Richmond, a professor at the Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology at George Washington University in Washington.
Study of the skull could help scientists understand "what it is about these individuals that allowed them to move outside of Africa" — how their bodies and their use of tools advanced to enable them to move more freely, Richmond said.
Million-year-old fossils of hominids — extinct creatures of the extended ancestral family of modern humans — have been found in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, but not in Western Europe. Georgia is south of the Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea and northeast of Turkey, but is considered part of Europe.