Research says humans temporarily left Europe for 200,000 years

It was believed that once humans arrived, they never left.
Sejal Sharma
Representational image of migration
Representational image of migration


Based on historical evidence and theories, we have believed that they never went extinct since humans arrived. Research points out that humanity has continued to exist and adapt even in the coldest of climates.

But a recent study by paleoclimate scientists from University College London, University of Cambridge, and CSIC Barcelona shows that some 1.1 million years ago, extreme climate change may have temporarily wiped out early hominins in Europe.

Humans depopulated Europe

Hominins consist of modern humans, extinct human species, and all our immediate ancestors. Modern humans who look like us evolved about 300,000 years ago. Before that, there was Homo erectus, an extinct species of human that lived between 1.9 million and 135,000 years ago.

Most of our knowledge about when and how humanity came about comes from unearthing and studying fossilized remains. The earliest footprints of hominin civilization in the European continent can be traced back to Iberia - divided between peninsular Spain and continental Portugal -  about 1.4 million years ago. 

It’s estimated that the weather was warm and wet, with a few bouts of mild cold periods. Up to now, the prevailing theory has been that once humans arrived, they were able to survive through multiple climate cycles and adapt to increasingly harsh conditions.

Research off the coast of Portugal

But in this recent study, researchers analyzed marine and terrestrial characteristics from a deep-sea core off the coast of Portugal. They found evidence of a shift in climate that brought on a period of extreme cold, with temperatures dipping below freezing.

The team believes that this extreme condition was brought on by the melting and rapid disintegration of a large ice sheet covering the Arctic, as well as parts of North America and Europe, according to the Natural History Museum. The source of warm water from the tropics into the North Atlantic was weakened by around 95 percent, meaning there was no heat.

According to Professor Axel Timmermann, co-author of the paper and a climate expert, “According to the sediment core data, temperatures rapidly dropped by 5-7°C in the eastern Atlantic about 1.12 million years ago,” he told Natural History Museum.

Humans today can face this kind of extreme weather, but this wasn’t the case back then. Humans back then did not have access to heating or warm clothes. It is assumed that they left the continent empty for hundreds and thousands of years.

“When humans came back to Europe, as evidenced by ancient footprints in Happisburgh in the UK and similar aged sites, they were tolerating colder winters than today,” said Professor Chris Stringer, a Natural History Museum scientist and co-author of the paper. 

“It suggests they may have adapted to become more resilient to the cold or had developed new hunting techniques, for example, to help them survive,” he added.

Study abstract:

The oldest known hominin remains in Europe [~1.5 to ~1.1 million years ago (Ma)] have been recovered from Iberia, where paleoenvironmental reconstructions have indicated warm and wet interglacials and mild glacials, supporting the view that once established, hominin populations persisted continuously. We report analyses of marine and terrestrial proxies from a deep-sea core on the Portugese margin that show the presence of pronounced millennial-scale climate variability during a glacial period ~1.154 to ~1.123 Ma, culminating in a terminal stadial cooling comparable to the most extreme events of the last 400,000 years. Climate envelope–model simulations reveal a drastic decrease in early hominin habitat suitability around the Mediterranean during the terminal stadial. We suggest that these extreme conditions led to the depopulation of Europe, perhaps lasting for several successive glacial-interglacial cycles.

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