|22 May 2005
Earliest European homo sapiens is 31,000 years old
How did Neanderthals disappear from prehistoric Europe? The debate has been raging for decades. Neanderthals disappeared from Europe about 30,000 years ago, but what was the reason? Was it interbreeding, disease, war? Did they live side by side with H. sapiens?
The journal Nature reported on 19 May 2005 that an Austrian-led team discovered more evidence to throw into this very contested debate. The team confirmed that fossil remains from the Mladec Caves in the Czech Republic are 31,000 years old, putting the bones age to be at the time the Neanderthals vanished from the area. The bones represent the only known remains in Europe directly linked to useful and artistic Aurignacian artifacts made from bone and stone by humans 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.
In addition to Mladec, found in the early 19th century and systematically excavated in 1881, many Aurignacian sites were discovered decades, and even centuries ago. These sites have unearthed everything from flint chopping tools to elaborate cave paintings and exquisitely carved knives. Much of the understanding of modern humans’ stay in Europe was based on the findings at these sites.
The bones from six individuals found in the caves are generally regarded as ‘modern,’ although some of the fossil skulls seem to have heavy brow ridges and protruding bone in the back of the head, features usually associated with Neanderthals. “These characteristics could be explained by interbreeding, or seen as Neanderthal ancestry,” said Eva Maria Wild, of the University of Vienna. “The finds are essential in the ongoing debate over the emergence of modern humans in Europe.”
It has been believed that modern humans arrived in Europe 40,000 years ago from Africa via the Middle East. Thirteen thousand years later they had totally replaced the Ice Age Neanderthals who lived in Europe for at least 100,000 years. The reason for their complete extinction is unknown.
Modern dating techniques show the bones found in most of these sites to be much younger than the tools, ornaments and other artifacts found. Wild’s team re-examined the early conclusions by using radiocarbon analysis on teeth and one bone. The findings suggests the teeth are about 31,000 radiocarbon years old, a yardstick that can be somewhat different from calendar years. These recent dating conclusions called into question the linkage between modern humans and their ‘tools. The results make Mladec the only Aurignacian artifact site with human remains from the same period as the artifacts found there.
Sources: France-Presse, The Washington Post (19 May 2005), EurekAlert (20 May 2005)
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