The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe

Tom Higham, Tim Compton, Chris Stringer, Roger Jacobi, Beth Shapiro, Erik Trinkaus, Barry Chandler, Flora Gröning, Chris Collins, Simon Hillson, Paul O'Higgins, Charles FitzGerald, Michael Fagan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

179 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The earliest anatomically modern humans in Europe are thought to have appeared around 43,000-42,000 calendar years before present (43-42 kyr cal BP), by association with Aurignacian sites and lithic assemblages assumed to have been made by modern humans rather than by Neanderthals. However, the actual physical evidence for modern humans is extremely rare, and direct dates reach no farther back than about 41-39 kyr cal BP, leaving a gap. Here we show, using stratigraphic, chronological and archaeological data, that a fragment of human maxilla from the Kent's Cavern site, UK, dates to the earlier period. The maxilla (KC4), which was excavated in 1927, was initially diagnosed as Upper Palaeolithic modern human. In 1989, it was directly radiocarbon dated by accelerator mass spectrometry to 36.4-34.7 kyr cal BP. Using a Bayesian analysis of new ultrafiltered bone collagen dates in an ordered stratigraphic sequence at the site, we show that this date is a considerable underestimate. Instead, KC4 dates to 44.2-41.5 kyr cal BP. This makes it older than any other equivalently dated modern human specimen and directly contemporary with the latest European Neanderthals, thus making its taxonomic attribution crucial. We also show that in 13 dental traits KC4 possesses modern human rather than Neanderthal characteristics; three other traits show Neanderthal affinities and a further seven are ambiguous. KC4 therefore represents the oldest known anatomically modern human fossil in northwestern Europe, fills a key gap between the earliest dated Aurignacian remains and the earliest human skeletal remains, and demonstrates the wide and rapid dispersal of early modern humans across Europe more than 40 kyr ago.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)521-524
Number of pages4
JournalNature
Volume479
Issue number7374
Early online date2 Nov 2011
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 24 Nov 2011

Keywords

  • animals
  • Bayes theorem
  • caves
  • dentition
  • emigration and immigration
  • fossils
  • Great Britain
  • history, ancient
  • humans
  • Maxilla
  • neanderthals
  • radiometric dating

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    Higham, T., Compton, T., Stringer, C., Jacobi, R., Shapiro, B., Trinkaus, E., Chandler, B., Gröning, F., Collins, C., Hillson, S., O'Higgins, P., FitzGerald, C., & Fagan, M. (2011). The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature, 479(7374), 521-524. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10484