Humans’ entry into Europe pushed earlier

People may have spread across the continent more than 40,000 years ago

Stone Age people arrived in Europe several thousand years earlier than previously thought and made tracks across the continent, two new studies suggest.

OLDEST BRIT A partial jaw containing three teeth, discovered in a British cave in 1927, may represent one of the earliest Stone Age humans to have reached Europe. Chris Collins/Natural History Museum, Torquay Museum

Both papers, published online November 2 in Nature and already attracting controversy, support the proposal that modern humans established a European culture dating to 45,000 years ago that included sophisticated stone tools and personal ornaments. Until now, the oldest modern human fossils in Europe dated to about 40,000 years ago.

Other researchers contend that Neandertals, who inhabited Europe before Homo sapiens showed up, made these items on their own (SN: 5/13/06, p. 302).

One new investigation concludes that two teeth found in a southern Italian cave in 1964, and originally attributed to Neandertals, instead belonged to modern humans who reached the area between 45,000 and 43,000 years ago. If so, it makes these teeth the oldest European H. sapiens remains.

“These two teeth confirm that the arrival of our species in Europe, and the period of coexistence with Neandertals, was several thousand years longer than previously thought,” says team leader Stefano Benazzi, an anthropologist at the University of Vienna. Neandertals died out about 30,000 years ago.

The Italian teeth resemble those of Stone Age and living people, not Neandertals, his team finds. After obtaining radiocarbon dates for marine shells previously found in soil layers at the site, the researchers calculated the probable age range for fossil-bearing earth. Stone implements, shell beads and other late Stone Age artifacts were found nearby, presumably made by these people.

A second study, directed by archaeologist Tom Higham of the University of Oxford in England, attributes a partial jaw containing three teeth, discovered in a British cave called Kent’s Cavern in 1927, to a modern human from between 44,200 and 41,500 years ago. Homo sapiens swiftly trekked from Mediterranean areas to northwestern Europe, the researchers suggest.

Higham’s team identified mainly modern human characteristics on the British teeth and dated it using radiocarbon dates for animal bones found above and below the jaw. A previous radiocarbon age of 35,000 years for the jaw was considered dubious, because much of the bone had been contaminated by glue used in its conservation.

But even the new dates are untrustworthy, says archaeologist Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield in England. For one thing, periodic flooding in Kent’s Cavern regularly shifted fossils and sloped soil layers around. Higham’s team tried to account for bones deemed to have moved in the ground, but that’s futile in this case, Pettitt says. Also unreliable, he says, are written records from 1927 of where fossils and animal bones were found, which were critical to Higham’s analysis.

Benazzi’s estimate of when people reached Italy also stands on shaky ground, since isolated teeth easily move through soil over time, argues archaeologist Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in Talence, France.

Neandertals used red pigment to decorate perforated sea shells 50,000 years ago in Spain, so they were capable of making early tools and ornaments in Italy, remarks archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona, Spain. It’s impossible to tell, he says, whether a couple of teeth, without any accompanying body parts, belonged to modern humans or Neandertals.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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