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8 December 2011
Excavations in Serbia question early humans in Europe

Sicevo Gorge - a canyon cut into the Kunivica plateau in southeastern Serbia - contains a series of caves, at least one of which has yielded evidence of human presence during the Ice Age of present-day Europe. In 2008, anthropologists excavating in a small cave uncovered a partial human lower jaw with three teeth.
     "We were looking for Neanderthals," said Dr. Mirjana Roksandic, a participating palaeo-anthropologist with the University of Winnepeg (Canada) and a leading research team member. "But this is much better."
     What they discovered was definitely a human that, at least in terms of morphology, predated the Neanderthal and may have had more in common physically with Homo erectus - thought by many scientists to be the precursor to both Neanderthals and modern humans. Recent tests conducted by Dr. Norbert Mercier at the University of Bordeaux (France) produced a date of "older than" 113,000 years BP - long before modern humans in present-day Europe - and the fossil could be substantially older.
     The find raises new questions about the picture of early human movement and subsistence within a geographic area that researchers suggest was a southern haven for early humans during the shifting glaciation of the Ice Age. Says Roksandic: "The absence of Neanderthal traits in a specimen of this age is counter to the common assumption that Neanderthals were the only hominin group in Europe during this time period... Any new finds are bound to be extremely relevant as there is such a dearth of information on this critical area for human and animal movement into and out of Europe".
     The Balkans, which include Sicevo Gorge, are thought to beĀ one of three southern refuges during the oscillating glaciations of Europe in the Pleistocene era. Sicevo Gorge is unique in that it was the only one which never experienced geographic isolation, and thus offers immense potential as a setting for important research on the biogeography of both early human and animal populations during the Palaeolithic period. This includes research on the migratory routes that early humans took when emerging from their African homeland.
     "When animals moved from Africa into Europe in the Early Pleistocene," states Roksandic, "this was the most likely corridor for their movement." The team plans to return again to explore the caves of Sicevo in 2012.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (28 November 2011)

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