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 First humans in Europe infographic
Graphic shows timeline of first humans in Europe.


First humans in Europe

By Duncan Mil

August 11, 2023 - A big freeze previously unknown to science drove early humans from Europe for 200,000 years, until more resilient humans – with evolutionary changes that allowed survival – returned.

Scientists at University College London (UCL )and the IBS Center for Climate Physics, Pusan National University, South Korea, led the research.

The study, published in Science, finds that around 1.12 million years ago, a colossal cooling event in the North Atlantic triggered shifts in climate, vegetation and food resources. The big freeze likely caused the extinction of early humans in Europe.

“Our discovery of an extreme glacial cooling event around 1.1 million years ago challenges the idea of continuous early human occupation of Europe,” said Prof. Chronis Tzedakis (UCL), who led the research.

Archaic humans, Homo erectus, moved from Africa into central Eurasia around 1.8 million years ago. From there on, they spread towards Western Europe, establishing a foothold in the Iberian peninsula around 1.5 million years ago.

Researchers combined data from deep ocean sediment cores from the eastern subtropical Atlantic with supercomputer climate and human habitat model simulations covering the period of the depopulation event.

Scientists discovered that around 1.12 million years ago, the climate over the eastern North Atlantic and the adjacent land suddenly cooled by seven degrees Centigrade.

The habitat model determined environmental conditions were unsuitable for early H. erectus.

“We found that over many areas of southern Europe, early human species such as H. erectus would not have been able to survive,” said Prof. Axel Timmermann of Pusan National University.

PUBLISHED: 11/08/2023; STORY: Graphic News; PICTURES: Getty Images, Natural History Museum