|23 September 2003
Oldest European human fossils
A male adult jawbone found in a bear cave in the Carpathian Mountains (Romania) has been dated to between 34,000 and 36,000 years old. The fossil belongs to one of three individuals, all thought to be of similar age, who lived at the time when modern humans shared the continent with Neanderthals, their now extinct hominid cousins. And researchers reporting the discoveries have suggested that the fossils show a degree of hybridisation – interbreeding between homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
The finding is likely to add fuel the long standing debate on whether there was any mixing of species. Those arguing against hybridisation point to DNA studies that show that Neanderthals contributed little or nothing to the genes of humans living today. Some molecular studies have seemed to indicate that our last common ancestor existed before Neanderthals appeared, refuting any possibility of cross-species breeding. “The problem with this whole debate is that we have so few specimens in Europe – it’s hard to make a hard and fast case,” says Professor Clive Gamble of the UK’s Centre of the Archaeology of Human Origins. “The genetic studies are quite convincing but we need more information and that makes these new fossils very interesting. I’m sure that what we deal with eventually is going to be a more wonderful mosaic.”
The Romanian finds are detailed by Professor Erik Trinkhaus and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Human Evolution. The fossils, while undeniably modern, display very primitive features, such as large molars. The lower jawbone and upper jaw have the same pattern in the cheek teeth, with the wisdom teeth “simply huge”. “They are bigger than just about anything else we have found from the last 200,000 years,” says Professor Trinkhaus.
Currently the most popular model for the emergence of homo sapiens places their origin in Africa within the last 200,000 years. From here they swept across the world to displace other hominid species, including Neanderthals. Commenting on the Romanian finds, Mary Tileston Hemenway, Professor of Anthropology at Washington University, St. Louis, USA, said: “The best explanation I can offer is that when modern humans spread out of Africa they interbred with local populations of archaic humans. It shows us that the earliest ‘modern Europeans’ were considerable less modern than we normally consider them to be, and that significant human evolution in details of anatomy has taken place since they became established across Eurasia”.
The fossils were originally discovered in February 2002 in Pestera cu Oase (Cave with Bones) by three Romanian cavers. Professor Trinkhaus speculates that the site may have been used as a mortuary for the ritual disposal of bodies. The previous oldest modern human remains on Europe are dated to around 30,000 years ago. The oldest ever modern human remains were found at Herto in Ethiopia in June of this year and are estimated to be about 160,000 years old.
Source: BBC News (22 September 2003)
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