This Archaeologist's 88,000-Year-Old Finger Bone Discovery May Rewrite Human History
In most people's imaginations, archaeologists spend their days carefully unearthing artifacts and ancient fossils by arduously chiseling away at debris and sweeping away soil. Every once in a while, though, you get lucky, like Iyad Zalmout did: while taking a walk, he spotted an ancient human finger bone sitting on top of the sand in the middle of the Sahara desert.
Now, that finger bone may rewrite history by changing our date for when humans migrated out of Africa.
The finger bone was discovered near the site of the Al Wusta archaeological dig, which sought to explore an ancient human settlement located around a now-evaporated freshwater lake in the Nefud Desert.
Animal bones and stone tools had been uncovered in the area, suggesting that there were more artifacts lurking nearby, but the finger bone was a surprise.
After sending it to be analyzed, the bone was identified to belong to homo sapiens and was dated to be 88,000 years old, making it the oldest directly dated human fossil discovered yet (for clarification, older human fossils have been discovered, but their age has been estimated based on contextual clues, such as the surrounding sediments).
So what can we learn from a single, old finger bone? A lot, actually.
If the researcher's theory is correct, the discovery of this finger bone in the Sahara means that humans migrated out of Africa 20,000 to 25,000 years earlier than previously thought, and did not move in a single mass migration.
According to Michael Petraglia, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History:
"This find supports a model of not a single rapid dispersal, but a much more complicated scenario of migration. Combined with other discoveries made in the last few years, this suggests humans moved out of Africa multiple times during many windows of opportunities in the last 100,000 years or so."
However, several questions remain: other scientists have argued that the bone may, in fact, belong to a Neanderthal or another non-human species, that the uranium series dating used to find the bone's age doesn't work reliably on bone, and that the bone's location may point to patterns of roaming, rather than migration.
Time will tell the full story, but we should count ourselves lucky that the desert didn't swallow up this tiny chunk of bone.