New findings from an international team led by Roman Garba from the Nuclear Physics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences have confirmed that the oldest known human occupation in Europe occurred 1.4 million years ago near the town of Korolevo in western Ukraine.

Until now, the earliest inhabited site in Europe was thought to be Atapuerca in Spain, dating back around 1.2-1.3 million years. The new study, published in Nature, shows that early hominids were able to colonize Europe from the east or southeast by taking advantage of warm interglacial periods.

Our ancestor Homo erectus was the first hominin to leave Africa around 2 million years ago, spreading to the Near East, East Asia and Europe, said lead author Roman Garba.

The dating of the first human presence at Korolevo not only fills a major geographic gap between sites in Georgia and Spain, but confirms the hypothesis that the initial dispersal of hominins into Europe came from the east or southeast.

The archaeological site at Korolevo, located in the Zakarpattia region near the borders of Romania and Hungary, is believed to be the northernmost known Homo erectus site in the world. It contains thousands of stone tools but no fossils. However, the dating confirms Homo erectus occupied the area 1.4 million years ago.

Based on climate modeling and pollen data, we identified three possible warm interglacial periods when the first hominins could have reached Korolevo, likely following the Danube River migration corridor, Garba added.

Korolevo is important for all of Europe as we know the loess and paleosol layers here are up to 14 meters deep and contain thousands of stone artifacts, explained Ukrainian archaeologist Vitalii Usyk, a co-author who worked on the Korolevo excavations.

We identified seven periods of human occupation in the stratified layers, with at least nine different Paleolithic cultures represented – hominins lived here from 1.4 million years ago until around 30,000 years ago.

To conclusively date the oldest stone tools required expertise from nuclear physics and geophysics. Researchers chemically processed rock samples from the lowest archaeological layer and used accelerator mass spectrometry to measure concentrations of cosmogenic beryllium-10 and aluminum-26 nucleides. The ratio of these nucleides enabled calculating how long the rocks were buried.

This is the first time our new isochron-burial dating method has been applied in archaeology, said geochronologist John Jansen.

I hope it has great impact, as it can date highly fragmented sediment records which are common in archaeology, whereas traditional long-range dating relies on more continuous records.

The multidisciplinary research integrated knowledge from archaeology, nuclear physics, geophysics and climate science to reveal new insights into the earliest human history of Europe.


Sources

Institute of Archaeology of Czech Academy of Sciences | Garba, R., Usyk, V., Ylä-Mella, L. et al. East-to-west human dispersal into Europe 1.4 million years ago. Nature (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41586-024-07151-3


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