Professor Rainer Grün, director of Griffith University’s Australian research centre for human evolution, headed the team that reconstructed and dated the fossil as at least 210,000 years old.
“There are only two Homo sapiens remains older than 150,000 years old outside Africa: Misliya and Apidima. Apidima is quite a bit older than Misliya,” Professor Grün said.
Misliya cave in Israel is the site of the previous oldest modern human remains discovered outside of Africa, dated to between 177,000 and 194,000 years old.
“Imagine, there are only three hominid skulls in Greece altogether (the third is called Petralona), and two of them are found 30 centimetres apart. That is already amazingly sensational,” Professor Grün said.”
“Until our reconstruction, Apidima 1 was regarded as a Neanderthal as well.”
The team used “laser ablative” techniques to slice tiny parts off the fossils, which could then be tested using radiometric dating to determine their age.
They also used 3D modelling techniques to reconstruct virtual models of the skulls, which could then be compared with other fossils visually.
Neanderthals are a species of human that diverged from modern humans – Homo sapiens – and spread out of Africa before us, settling in many parts of Europe and the Near East.
How they then interacted with the modern humans who caught up with them is still a topic of debate among scientists but whatever the reality, Neanderthals disappeared about 40,000 years ago.
The research team said the age of Apidima 1 suggested modern humans had spread out from Africa multiple times, instead of in one mass migration.
Having the two skulls found so close to each other also suggested modern humans could have been living in very similar areas to Neanderthals, Professor Grün said.
“Genetic research shows that there may have been an influx of modern human genes in the Neanderthal genome around 200,000 years ago,” he said.
“While we cannot prove anything [DNA extraction of the Apidima fossils turned out to be impossible], at least we now have fossil evidence that that could have happened.
“Whether Europeans are actually descendants of Apidima 1 [and 2 – there are Neanderthal genes in all Europeans] is of course another question that will probably never be answered.”
The international research team was led by Professor Katerina Harvati from the University of Tübingen, Germany.
The findings were published on Thursday in the journal Nature.
Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times. He was formerly the Queensland political reporter for AAP.