The earliest human remains in Greece
In 1959, a peasant from the village of Petralona in Northern Greece, quite near Thessaloniki, discovered a cave. One year later, a fellow villager found there what he thought was the skeleton of an ape. In fact he had discovered the earliest human remains in Greece, the skeleton of a man reclining against the wall of the cave surrounded by piles of bones of prehistoric animals, all covered in stalagmitic deposits, ie. layers of limestone that had formed drop-by-drop over countless millenia.
He reported the find to his fellow villagers and the police, but by the time the authorities arrived, an unknown number of people had entered the cave. It seems that during this time someone tried to remove the bones from the hardened limestone using a crowbar. The skeleton shattered and was probably removed by the perpetrator*. The researchers had to contend themselves with the jawless skull, which survived because it had become part of the stalagmite that had formed where the man lay. It presented them with an excellent riddle that remains largely unsolved to this day.
Who was the man of Petralona?
Researchers still furiously debate the lineage of humans, and the specimen from Petralona could be no exception. Various names and classifications have been proposed, from Homo Erectus (quite primitive) to Homo Sapiens (modern humans). Adjectives such as Petralonensis or Trigliensis (from the nearby village of Trillia or Triglia, after the discovery of a similarly archaic tibia there) have also been proposed. This is not surprising, as the skull does not lend itself to easy classification. It is longer and flatter than those of modern humans, with a shorter, sloping forehead, prominent eyebrows and a ridge along the back. Its bones are thicker than ours and held a brain that was about 10% smaller in volume than ours. All in all, a specimen that is much more advanced than apes, but is not quite like us yet. Nor does it have the features of a typical Neanderthal. So what is it?
After 5 decades, today the consensus seems to be that the “Petralona man” probably belongs to an extinct human species known as Homo Heidelbergensis (after a jaw discovered near Heidelberg, Germany in 1907). This intermediate species bridges the gap between the more primitive Homo Erectus and that ‘paragon of animals,’ Homo Sapiens, ie. ourselves. Other, similar specimens have been found which indicate that these archaic humans spanned a huge territory, covering Africa and much of Europe and Asia.
How old is he?
Transitions from one species to another are slow; the evolution from Homo Erectus to modern humans played out over thousands of years. Therefore, knowing his place in the human family tree cannot tell us when the man of Petralona lived. An approximate date spanning hundreds millenia is not very helpful.
Archaeologists turned to biologists for help, who found that most of the bones near our caveman belong to animals that lived in the Middle Pleistocene, an era between 781 and 126 years ago.
Seeking a more accurate dating, physicists took samples from the cave, and subjected them to a barrage of dating methods, such as U/Th (Uranium/Thorium dating), EPR or ESR (Electron paramagnetic resonance or electron spin resonance), TL (thermoluminescence), paleomagnetism, and more. The resulting dates ranged from 70 to more than 600 thousand years, but those around the human remains seem to indicate that these are older than 270,000 years. Other traces of human activity in the cave have been dated between 300-350 thousand years ago, while the cave fauna dates from as early as 700,000 ago. Allowing for a large margin of error, archaeologists today tag the man of Petralona as having lived in the area any time between 400 and 250 thousand years ago.
Was he the first Greek or first European?
Some claim the man of Petralona as the oldest human in Europe, but this is probably incorrect in light of discoveries in Northern Europe (a bit older) and Spain (probably twice as old as the Greek specimen). Evidently much of Europe was inhabited by archaic humans much like the man in the Greek cave, and, if the dates are correct, this was going on for thousands of years before the man died in that cave. This can only mean that the man of Petralona was not the first European nor even the first Greek. He is simply the oldest human that has been found in Greece to date, a fact that may change any time with the discovery of another skeleton.
What was he like?
Similar skulls accompanied by other skeletal bones allow us to estimate the average height of Heidelbergensis humans as similar to that of modern ones. However, they were more heavy set and their heavy brows and sloping foreheads would have given them a “primitive” look, much like that of the Neanderthal dioramas in several museums around the world. Facial reconstruction techniques helped give a face to the man from Petralona.
Was he human?
Undoubtedly, the Petralona skull belongs to a human, not an ape.
He and his people used stone tools, which have been found, implying the existence of an unknown number of other artefacts such as ropes, baskets, wooden clubs, etc (which have not been preserved). The existence of tools means that there are the brains to fashion them and a means of communication to pass on the knowledge of their manufacture.
But intelligence and language were not the only things the Petralona man and his fellows had in common with modern humans; at some of their sites evidence has been found of deliberate burials, which suggests the emergence of some sort of belief in an afterlife. In other sites, pigments have been discovered that could have no other use but decoration or ritual. There is no other conclusion: the Heidelbergensis were not half-witted brutes with a club and a few grunts, but people with a culture and oral tradition, features uniquely human.
Was he smart?
When hearing about a smaller brain, people often think that means a smaller IQ. That is not the case. Modern human brains range from 1100 to 1400 cm2, without a corresponding difference in intelligence. That proves that the latter is not proportionate to volume but rather to the wiring of the brain and the evidence points to a wiring not unlike our own.
What was his life like?
The Petralona band would probably lead a nomadic life following game in their seasonal migrations. They hunted and foraged, used fire and probably cooked. They probably huddled around the fire in the evenings to hear stories or tell of recent hunts. They probably often went hungry and their mortality rates must have been appalling. But, although their appearance was primitive, their language would sound odd to our ears, their lifestyle was limited by the lack of discoveries that had not yet been made, one thing is certain: they were smart enough to think of ways to improve their lives and use them to adapt and survive against the odds. They succeeded for hundreds of millennia, compared to the mere few millennia of modern humans. If only we could turn out to be as smart as they were.
* Liritzis, Y. (1982b) A critical datng reevaluation of Petralona hominid: a caution for patience, Archaeological Analecta of Athens, XV(2).285-294.