Jawbone fragment suggests humans settled Europe thousands of years earlier than we once thoughtS

Sometimes it really pays to take a second look at old findings. The fragment of jaw bone pictured above, believed to have belonged to an anatomically modern human, was first discovered over 80 years ago in Kents Cavern, an archaeologically rich cave system located in South England.

For decades scientists believed the specimen to be around 35,000 years old, but recent findings — published in this week's issue of Nature — suggest that its original owner actually lived thousands of years earlier than we once thought.

"The new date and identification of this bone from Kents Cavern is very important, as we now have direct evidence that modern humans were in northwest Europe about 42,500 years ago," explains Oxford University's Tom Higham, who led the study. Higham says the finding "tells us a great deal about the dispersal speed of our species across Europe during the last Ice Age."

Higham's is one of two complementary studies published in this week's issue of Nature that point to the early arrival of modern humans in Europe. The second study—led by University of Vienna anthropologist Gerhard Webber—concluded that a pair of teeth first discovered in southern Italy in the 1960s belonged not to a Neanderthal, but to an anatomically modern human. According to Webber, both studies were made possible through innovations in radiometric dating techniques developed within the last ten years.

Both publications add weight to the hypothesis that early humans coexisted with Neanderthals in northwestern Europe, something Higham says a number of researchers have long doubted due to gaps in the archaeological record. And while geneticists have still yet to find any compelling evidence of prehistoric, inter-species breeding, findings like these — which show us not just where, but when humans and Neanderthals overlapped in Europe — will play an important role in helping us determine whether any Neanderthal/human canoodling actually occurred.

[Via Nature + MSNBC]
Photo by Chris Collins via The Torquay Museum