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7 November 2011
Earliest known modern human in Northwest Europe

A tiny piece of upper jaw was excavated from Kents Cave, near Torquay, in the southwest of England in 1927, but its significance was not fully realised until scientists recently checked its age with advanced techniques only now available. The fresh analysis at Oxford University dated the bone and three teeth to between 44,200 and 41,500 years ago.
     The age of the remains puts modern humans at the edge of the habitable world at the time, and increases the period over which they shared the land with Neanderthals, our close relatives who evolved in Europe and Asia. The remains are close in age to the first examples of Aurignacian culture, exemplified by a range of artefacts from flint and bone tools to figurines and cave paintings that date from 45,000 to 35,000 years ago.
     "We believe this piece of jawbone is the earliest direct evidence we have of modern humans in northwestern Europe," said Tom Higham, deputy director of the Oxford radiocarbon accelerator unit, who led the study. "It confirms the presence of modern humans at the time of the earliest Aurignacian culture, and tells us a great deal about how rapidly our species dispersed across Europe during the last ice age. It also means that early humans must have co-existed with Neanderthals in this part of the world."
     The early humans who arrived at Kents Cave ventured into Britain along with other animals when a warm spell lasting perhaps only a thousand years made Britain temporarily habitable, and either retreated or died out when temperatures later dropped again.

Edited from Nature, Popular Archaeology, ScienceDaily, The Guardian (2 November 2011)

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