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Possible Human Ancestors In Spain 780,000 Years Ago

Paleomagnetic dating indicates possible human ancestors lived in Spain more than 780,000 years ago, says U-M expert.

University of Michigan
412 Maynard St. Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1399

TORONTO---Some 780,000 years ago, the first Europeans were using simple stone tools to scratch out a living in a cave called Gran Dolina in the Atapuerca Mountains of northern Spain. Whether they were direct ancestors of modern Homo sapiens or an evolutionary dead end like the Neanderthals is for anthropologists to decide. But Josep Pares is certain of one thing: they were living there 780,000 years ago.

An expert on paleomagnetic dating, Pares, who is now a University of Michigan research scientist, first reported the age of the Atapuerca hominid fossils in an article published in Science on Aug. 11, 1995, with colleague Alfredo Perez-Gonzalez. Since no hominid fossils or tools older than 500,000 years had ever been discovered in Europe before, Pares' date was highly controversial.

Pares based his date for the Gran Dolina fossils on the orientation of magnetic minerals in the rock layer in which the fossils were found. In the early 1900s, scientists discovered that magnetic minerals in rocks work like tiny compass needles---pointing toward the location of the Earth's magnetic field at the time the rock was created.

Today Earth's magnetic field lies to the north, but it wasn't always that way. The field has switched back and forth between north and south many times in the Earth's 4.5-billion-year history. The last major switch from south to north, which scientists call the Matuyama/Brunhes reversal, took place about 780,000 years ago. This reversal marks the boundary between the lower and middle Pleistocene geological epochs.

"Because the Gran Dolina fossils were found below the Matuyama/Brunhes boundary with a clear signal of reversed polarity, we are confident the date is accurate," Pares said.

At the Geological Soc
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Contact: Sally Pobojewski
pobo@umich.edu
734-647-1844
University of Michigan
27-Oct-1998


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