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MADRID (Reuters) - Early humans may have roamed Europe as much as 1.2 million years ago, far earlier than previously thought, scientists said on Wednesday, based on fossils they found in northern Spain.
Researchers excavated a jaw bone, teeth and simple tools in a cave near the city of Burgos dated around 400,000 years older than the previously oldest-known remains found at a nearby site 14 years ago, a paper published in the journal Nature said.
The remains are accurately dated and lay to rest doubts about when early humans first lived in Europe, said Andreu Olle, who has worked at the Atapuerca site since 1990.
"These are the oldest human remains in Europe. With this fossil, we can say it (Europe) was populated earlier than was thought," he told Reuters.
The bones are similar to fossils thought to be 800,000 years old found at the same site in 1994, suggesting a continuous human presence in Western Europe.
Up to now archaeologists had found evidence of human activity in Spain, France and Italy around 1 million years ago but no human remains, only animal bones and stone tools.
Scientists generally agree that modern humans spread out of Africa starting about 50,000 years ago, quickly establishing Stone Age cultures throughout Europe, Asia and Australia.
However the fossil, thought to be from the "Homo antecessor" species, would have shared common ancestors with modern man and may have mixed with the more recent newcomers from Africa.
Flakes of flint embedded in animal bones, suggesting the use of a crude knife, were amongst the finds discovered at the site last June.
The find adds weight to the theory that early humans spread from Africa via the Middle East, not across the Straits of Gibraltar separating Africa from Europe, because the jaw was a similar shape to one unearthed in the central Asian country of Georgia thought to be 1.7 million years old.
edited by Richard Meares