In 1978, two skulls were discovered in a cave called Apidima in southern Greece. Both, it was thought, were Neanderthal. Now, a new study using 3D computer reconstructions has suggested that one skull is from a modern human, Homo sapiens, and, at 210,000 years old, more ancient than the other, Neanderthal one.
The findings are not universally accepted, but if true would rewrite the ancient history of Europe. The Apidima skull is 150,000 years older than any other H sapiens remains found in Europe, and older than any found outside Africa.
The study continues the pattern of fossil finds from Morocco to China complicating the previously accepted story of human evolution.
The interpretations placed upon many of these have generated controversy. Partly this is because large claims often have to be made from scanty evidence, but also because the stories told by ancient human bones are not simply scientific but political, too.
Until the mid 20th century, racial scientists insisted that fossil data revealed the superiority of the Caucasian race. In the 1970s, the “out of Africa” theory – the idea that all contemporary humans stem from a small group of H sapiens from east Africa – seemed to provide an objective basis for an anti-racist viewpoint. Our “descent from a recent African root”, the American palaentologist Stephen J Gould wrote, shows that “human unity is no idle political slogan”.
When last year a reconstruction of a skeleton discovered in 1903 in the Cheddar Gorge suggested that “Cheddar Man” had dark skin, some suggested that “we may have to rethink some of our notions of what it is to be British”.
The story of human origins no more tells us about equality now than the 10,000-year-old Cheddar Man speaks to contemporary Britishness. Appropriating the past to fight the battles of the present inevitably distorts both the past and the present.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist