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Fossil bone of what scientists believe is part of a Homo sapiens' middle finger found in the Al Wusta site in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Ian Cartwright

An international team of scientists say they have found the oldest Homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa and the Levant corridor — suggesting that early humans left Africa 20,000–25,000 years before most earlier evidence suggested.

Why it matters: The finding published in Nature Ecology and Evolution Monday supports the view that rather than migrating out of Africa 60,000 years ago in a single large migration, small groups of early humans may have left the continent earlier and in more complicated patterns than previously thought.

What the team found: After searching a site in the Al Wusta region of Saudi Arabia for nearly 10 years, they found part of a finger bone in 2016 along with hundreds of artifacts like stone tools and various types of animal fossils, including hippos. "It was like a dream come true," Michael Petraglia, one of the study authors, told reporters during a press conference.

How they tested it: They directly dated the fossil using radioisotopes, which they say is more reliable than solely testing the surrounding sediment or artifacts. They also tested the surrounding sediment, animal fossils and artifacts at independent laboratories and found the ages roughly matched.

The testing "very strongly demonstrates" the bone is from an early human, according to University of Oxford's Huw Groucutt, another study author who also spoke at the press briefing. Not only did labs confirm this, but the boneshape is much longer and thinner than Neanderthal fingers, he said.

Yes, but: Richard Potts, paleoanthropologist and director of the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History's Human Origins Program, says he agrees the bone is "probably" from a Homo sapiens but adds the claim that it is the oldest may downplay other recent findings in East Asia and Australia that also support the idea of smaller, periodic exits from Africa or its bordering Levant region.

The response: The authors say those prior studies are limited though because they either did not date the fossils directly (instead they tested associated layers of sediments and artifacts) or were unable to directly prove their fossils were Homo sapiens.

The big picture: "It's not just one single wave out of Africa 60,000 years ago," Petraglia said. "We're arguing here there were multiple dispersals out of Africa. The movement was far more complicated" than originally thought.

Go deeper

Cuomo: "No way I resign" after sexual harassment accusations

Cuomo at a Feb. 24 press conference. Photo: Seth Wenig/pool/AFP via Getty Images

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was defiant on Sunday, stating again that he would not resign even as more former aides have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.

The big picture: Cuomo has denied all sexual harassment allegations against him and said that he "never inappropriately touched anybody." He acknowledged in a statement that "some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation." Some of the calls for Cuomo to resign have come from within the Democratic party.

N.Y. Times faces culture clashes as business booms

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New York Times columnist David Brooks' resignation from a paid gig at a think tank on Saturday is the latest in a flurry of scandals that America's biggest and most successful newspaper company has endured in the past year.

Driving the news: Brooks resigned from the Aspen Institute following a BuzzFeed News investigation that uncovered conflicts of interest between his reporting and money he accepted from corporate donors for a project called "Weave" that he worked on at the nonprofit.

America rebalances its post-Trump news diet

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Nearly halfway through President Biden's first 100 days, data shows that Americans are learning to wean themselves off of news — and especially politics.

Why it matters: The departure of former President Trump's once-ubiquitous presence in the news cycle has reoriented the country's attention.