NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
Two new studies, published yesterday (November 2) in Nature, provide evidence that modern humans roamed Western Europe more than 41,000 years ago—earlier than any previous physical evidence of their presence.
In 1927, researchers unearthed a fragment of human upper jaw bone, whose dental morphology suggests it belonged to an early modern human, from Kent’s Cavern in southern England, and dated it to about 35,000 years old. But a new analysis, conducted by Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues, suggests the bone is actually much older, originating between 44,200 and 41,500 years ago. The new estimate means the fossil predates previous evidence for early humans in Western Europe, which date to just 41,000 to 39,000 years ago.
“Modern humans were previously known to be this old in southeastern Europe, but they had not been documented as early in Western Europe until the reassessment of the Kent’s Cavern fossil,” Trinkaus said in a press release. “The new date for the Kent’s Cavern upper jaw suggests a rapid spread of modern humans once they had crossed into Europe.”
A second team, led by Stefano Benazzi of the University of Vienna, also took another look at two molars recovered in southern Italy that were originally classified as Neanderthal. The reanalysis showed that, like the jaw, the teeth actually came from anatomically modern humans. By dating other objects found at the site, such as shell beads, the researchers estimated the teeth to be 45,000 to 43,000 years old. Though the discovery of stone tools have suggested that modern humans began roaming the western part of the continent between 44,000 and 42,000 years ago, the jaw bone and teeth are some of the first pieces of physical evidence to confirm that suspicion.