Although the European fossil and archaeological records are comparatively well-documented, the dating, routes of dispersal and identity of the earliest archaic European populations have not been resolved. The timing of the first colonization of Europe is still a matter of debate. Until recently, Northern Europe was thought not to have been inhabited before 500 ka, although the European Mediterranean was colonized much earlier. Human remains from Atapuerca, Spain, and Ceprano, Italy, have been dated to approximately 800 ka, indicating a very early occupation of Southern Europe. Lithic artifacts dated to ~ 700 ka from Pakefield, England recently also documented an early human presence also in Northern Europe. The discovery of much earlier human remains dated to 1.6 million years ago in Dmanisi, Georgia, also puts forth the issue of possible earlier ventures into the continent that have not yet been identified.
The route of migration of these populations is also unclear. A Levantine corridor through Asia Minor and Greece is often considered the most likely route of dispersal from Africa into Europe. However, the discoveries of the earliest European human fossils in Spain and Italy have suggested a direct dispersal from North Africa into the Iberian and Italian peninsulae. Such a route is considered less likely due to the problems of crossing substantial bodies of water and navigating the strong currents of the straits of Gibraltar. Finally the taxonomic and phylogenetic positions of these early Europeans are disputed. The human remains from Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, have been attributed to the new species Homo antecessor, proposed as the last common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans. The position of the Ceprano calvaria, originally assigned to H. erectus, is still unresolved. The recent discoveries of H. ergaster with even more archaic affinities in Dmanisi, Georgia, further complicates the issue of the identity of the earliest Europeans and their relationships to later European hominins.
The Aliakmon survey is funded by grants to Katerina Harvati from:
The National Geographic Society
The L.S.B. Leakey Foundation
The Institute for Aegean Prehistory
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation
Additional funding provided by:
The Greek Ministry of Culture
New York University
Max Planck Institute
University of Oregon