Once out of Africa, early human migration was widespread

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The discovery of an 88,000-year-old fossilised human finger in Saudi Arabia is rewriting the history of the first human migration out of Africa.

Researchers at Cambridge University concluded that the 3.2-centimeter finger belonged to Homo sapiens.

Playing a vital role in the excavation of the finger bone, Griffith University palynologist Dr Julien Louys helped locate and identify the fossil at the dig site, while ARCHE's head of research Professor Rainer Grün, was the one responsible for calculating the age of the mysterious find at his Australian laboratory.

The researchers say the discovery puts a spotlight on Saudi Arabia as the region could lead to even more exciting discoveries relating to our early ancestors and their first steps out of Africa.

A report on the work was published on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. It seems humans lived in this area over 100,000 years ago.

Among the finds was a single small hominin bone.

But the finding nonetheless provides support for the theory that early humans left Africa more frequently than previously understood.

Genetic studies suggest that non-Africans today are descended from modern humans who walked out of Africa up to 60,000 years ago, with earlier migrants dying out - possibly due to the impact of Neanderthals, or being overwhelmed by further waves of our own species.

The site of Al Wusta where the researchers set camp used to house a freshwater lake, which attracted all sorts of creatures from hippopotamuses to tiny freshwater snails.

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"A more intriguing question", says Weinstein-Evron, is whether the early humans of the Levant and of Arabia all belong to the same population, or whether they represent multiple migrations out of Africa.

Fossil finger bone of Homo sapiens from the Al Wusta site, Saudi Arabia.

Using a technique called uranium series dating, Grün was able to pinpoint how long the fossil had been buried.

The ancient fossils ever found was 120,000 years old, found in China but their human origin was not dated precisely so far.

"This discovery for the first time conclusively shows that early members of our species colonized an expansive region of southwest Asia and were not just restricted to the Levant", Huw Groucutt, a researcher with the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said in a news release. "There were abundant animals and a lot of people living there", Groucutt said.

Where does the Al Wasta finger bone fit into all of this?

It was an intermediate phalanx, the bone between a fingertip and finger knuckle.

"The Arabian Peninsula has always been considered to be far from the main stage of human evolution". Crucially, said Groucutt, these stone tools were of an "old-fashioned" type, countering the idea that human migration beyond the Levant was driven by our species developing better technology, with evidence of an ancient lake highlighting that the dispersal was at least partly driven by a changing climate.

"Tracing the evolution and geographic dispersal of the human lineage is rather like connecting pitifully few dots on a vast three-dimensional grid of time and space", Henry wrote in an essay that accompanies the study.