The discovery and dating of early modern human remains and associated artefacts from a cave in southeastern Europe is reported in two studies published in Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution this week. The fossil hominins represent the oldest known instance of Upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens.
Modern humans (H. sapiens) entered Europe by around 45,000 years ago and soon after replaced Neanderthals. This period of population replacement is known as the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition. The precise timing of events during this transition period is greatly debated, owing to a lack of directly dated fossil remains.
In their Nature paper, Jean-Jacques Hublin and colleagues describe hominin remains and artefacts excavated from Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria. They find a tooth that they assign to H. sapiens, along with four other bone remains that are identified as human on the basis of their ancient protein and DNA content. Radiocarbon dating, described by Helen Fewlass and colleagues in the Nature Ecology & Evolution paper, suggests an age range between 46,940 and 43,650 years old. Analysis of DNA extracted from these bones provides estimated dates of 44,830 to 42,616 years old, supporting the radiocarbon dating.
The excavations also uncovered a number of ornaments, including pendants made from bear teeth that resemble those found in later sites associated with Neanderthal activity. Together, these findings demonstrate that modern humans expanded into the mid-latitudes of Eurasia before 45,000 years ago, overlapped with Neanderthals and thereby influenced their behavior before replacing them.
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