Modern humans swept across Europe more quickly and at an earlier date than palaeontologists had previously believed, according to new analysis of a fossilised jawbone from south-west England and two milk teeth from southern Italy.
The research shows that modern humans arriving on the continent coexisted for several thousand years with Neanderthals already living there.
The international study, published in the journal Nature, shows that the bone from Kent’s Cavern in Devon and teeth from Grotta del Cavallo in Apulia are between 42,000 and 45,000 years old – the most ancient human material yet discovered in Europe.
According to Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, the discoveries suggest that modern humans – Homo sapiens – might have travelled right across Europe within a thousand years, after entering the continent from the Middle East and Africa, taking advantage of a favourable climatic interval between ice ages. At the same time other groups of modern humans were moving in the opposite direction, south-eastwards through Asia to Australia.
The bone and teeth were excavated decades ago (in 1927 and 1964 respectively) but earlier researchers did not appreciate their significance.
The Italian teeth had been wrongly identified as Neanderthal. New digital scanning technology has proved that they came from anatomically modern children. The English jawbone was previously believed to be about 35,000 years old; now an ultra-sensitive new method of radiocarbon dating at Oxford university has put it back by at least 7,000 years.
During the period between 42,000 and 45,000 years ago cultural items such as beads and other personal ornaments – the so-called Aurignacian culture – began to appear in the European archeological record. Some palaeontologists believed that Neanderthals, who had been living in Europe for more than 100,000 years and died out about 30,000 years ago, were responsible for some sophisticated cultural items but the researchers say their new analysis throws doubt on this theory.
“We believe [the jawbone from Kent’s Cavern] is the earliest direct evidence we have of modern humans in northwestern Europe, at a site at the very outermost limits of the initial dispersal of our species,” said Professor Tom Higham of Oxford.
“It confirms the presence of modern humans at the time of the earliest Aurignacian culture, and tells us a great deal about how rapidly our species dispersed across Europe during the last ice age,” he added. “It also means that early humans must have coexisted with Neanderthals in this part of the world, something which a number of researchers have doubted.”