We have no evidence of human presence in Europe before 1.5 million years ago. The study of the European colonization is particularly exciting in the human evolution field.
1.5 MYA the populations of Homo erectus (Homo ergaster) were growing and expanding in Africa. They were giving rise to a new species which was the first humans migrating outside Africa into Europe via the Levant Corridor and went over the Danube-Rhine valleys. Subsequent migrations did the same path in search of areas with better climate and resources.
At this moment of the Middle Pleistocene, the first human populations in Europe were a dispersed grid throughout a vast area. They were a genetic mosaic. Some of them evolved independently in response to local adaptations to environmental changes. Some of them interbred with other populations as they were incoming in further migrations.
Who were the first Europeans?
There are a few possible models, as well as some combinations of them…
1) Descendants of H. ergaster gave rise 1 MYA to H. antecessor in Africa. This was the first human species arriving to Europe and evolved to the forms we call pre-Neandertals, which we find 500 KYA developing typical Neandertal features like the face and the dentition. Later in time, H. antecessor evolved in Africa to the populations we called H. rhodesiensis, which in turn they ended up evolving into H. sapiens.
2) A set of populations descendant from the Asian H. erectus could also trace the fertile valleys in Central Europe. Some of them would successfully settle some parts of Southern Europe for some time, and even would contribute to the genetic mosaic.
3) Descendants of H. ergaster gave rise 600 KYA in Africa to new forms called H. heidelbergensis. This species left Africa toward Europe. But in Europe there were some pre-existing human forms… or not, because they could have become extinct before. Later in time, H. heidelbergensis evolved in Africa independently towards the lineage of H. sapiens. In Europe they started to become the lineage of H. neanderthalensis.
4) H. antecessor was a local form developed in Europe by isolation. Alternatively, some morphological similarities with certain Asian specimens could suggest a potential migration of H. antecessor from Asia. This species could be close to the ‘mother population’ that evolved to the lineage heidelbergensis-neanderthalensis.
Some of the pieces from the previous scenarios are not exclusive, so they can be consideres to get even a more complicated puzzle. We know that simple evolutionary scenarios do not work.
Where can the first Europeans be found?
In any case, assuming that Europe was likely colonized in various waves of people at different times of the Middle Pleistocene, then we have many questions to resolve. When/who were the very first? Which was the ‘mother’ population of all the subsequent people? What was the degree of interbreeding of each new population with the previous people?
Even assuming that Homo antecessor arrived to Western Europe c. 1 MYA (Gran Dolina at Atapuerca, Happisburgh at Norfolk Coast), we have evidences of human presence before that: 1.2-1.3 MYA in Nothern Spain (Sima del Elefante at Atapuerca) and 1.3-1.5 MYA in Southern Spain (Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3 at Orce).
Orce is located 130 km from Granada, at the Guadix-Baza Basin, which contained a huge paleo-lake between 4 Ma and 200 Ka. This region is hugely rich in finds of the largest Pleistocene concentration of mammals in Eurasia. There were also groups of hominins in competition with big predators to get the rich resources in the area.
Only in 2015, the excavation work has recovered 160 Oldowan stone tools in levels of 1.4-1.5 Ma and 2,700 faunal remains of 1.3-2 Ma.
The following sections summarize the key paleontological sites in this area.
Fuente Nueva 3
Dated to 1.3 Ma, it is a unique site to reproduce the hominin behavior in that area. There was big fauna including hippos, rhinos, horses, bovids and giant elephants (with 9 individuals found so far). This site was a hot spring that the big fauna utilized, and the predators and hominids went there to get resources.
More than 2,000 Oldowan stone tools have been found there, together with fossil evidences of cutting legs, marrow extraction and head dismantling.
It was a paleo-river where many fauna remains have appeared, specially hippos, and associated stone tools which are of the same type as in Fuente Nueva 3.
In 2002 it was recovered a deciduous molar (BL02-J54-100) of a 10-year old hominin, published in Journal of Human Evolution in 2013. It was dated to 1.4 Ma with Electron Spin Resonance in combination with paleomagnetic and biochronologic data: the oldest hominin fossil in Europe.
Another molar (BL5-0) had been found in Barranco León in 1999, claimed to be a hominin deciduous tooth of the same individual (Current Anthropology, Feb 2015).
It is a huge site: a 1+ km2 area very dense in fossils (50 pieces per m2) which are exceptionally preserved. Only 380 m2 have been excavated so far, producing dozens of mammal remains including mammoths, hippos, rhinos, horses, deer, hyenas… The quantity and quality of the fossils allow to model the behavior patterns of many of them. They are dated to 1.5-1.6 Ma.
The interesting point is the similarity of the fauna in Venta Micena with that of Southern France, Italic Peninsula and Balkan Peninsula. And this fauna is fundamentally of Asian-type. In particular, there is an interesting similarity with the fauna of Dmanisi – where the fauna of Venta Micena shows some derived features that correspond to the 500,000 years of difference between both sites.
No direct evidence of human action has been found yet in Venta Micena. However, the remains seem to show that the hominins followed the patterns of migration of the fauna. At the end, hominids are part of the community of large mammals. The saber-toothed cat Megantereon whitei is particularly remarkable in this context. It migrated out of Africa followed by the Homo erectus, and both of them are found in Dmanisi. We have it in Venta Micena. If hominids are eventually found in Venta Micena, they might have much to do with those of Dmanisi.