A new study from Spanish scientists suggests that early humans may have lived in Western Europe as long as 1.3 million years ago, much earlier than previously believed.

mandible

A mandible discovered in northern Spain has been dated to 1.3 million years old. ((EIA/Jordi Mestre))

In a study released Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers report finding a jaw bone, teeth and simple tools that have been dated between 1.2 to 1.3 million years old.

The research team led by José María Bermúdez de Castro, a co-ordinator at Spain's National Research Centre on Human Evolution, and Eudald Carbonell, director of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleo-Ecology and Social Evolution, made the discovery in a cave near the city of Atapuerca in northern Spain.

The team said it dated the fossils using a variety of techniques. They also calculated the age of the rocks in which the fossils were found, somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2 million years ago.

Their results place the fossils at more than 400,000 years before the previous oldest known fossils in Western Europe, which were found in 1997 at a separate Atapuerca excavation site.

Same species as Homo antecessor

The 1997 find prompted the naming of the new species Homo antecessor, a possible ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans. The scientists said the newly discovered fossils appear to belong to the same species.

Additionally, the researchers said their finding also has similarities to much older fossils that were dug up in Georgia and have been dated to 1.8 million years old.

The study said their research, combined with findings from other sites, suggests that Western Europe was settled by an early human population from the east during the early Pleistocene Epoch, from 1.6 million to 10,000 years ago.

"This leads us to a very important, very interesting conclusion," Carbonell told the Associated Press, that early humans who emerged from Africa and settled in the Caucasus eventually evolved into Homo antecessor and populated Europe more than one million years ago.

Faster than previously thought

"The discovery of a 1.3 million-year-old fossil shows the process was accelerated and continuous; that the occupation of Europe happened very early and much faster than we had thought," he said.

He added that with this finding, researchers can now expect to uncover even older fossils in other parts of the continent.

"This has to be the next discovery," he said. "This is the scientific hypothesis."

With files from the Associated Press