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A Tooth Changes Everything We Know About Humans Reaching Europe


Remains of a modern human 45,000 years old found in the Balkans show our ancestors coexisted with Neanderthals in Europe for around 8,000 years.

A single tooth and a few bone fragments found in a cave in Bulgaria prove that modern humans reached Europe more than 45,000 years ago, some 5,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The finds from Bacho Kiro Cave, a prehistoric site on the slopes of the Balkan mountain range, show that Homo sapiens coexisted for thousands of years with Europe’s autochthonous hominins, the Neanderthals. The early modern humans likely had a strong influence on Neanderthal culture, an international team of researchers reports in a paper published Monday in Nature

While the study is unlikely to dispel the mystery surrounding the Neanderthals’ disappearance, it does suggest that the story of how modern humans expanded into Eurasia and replaced our evolutionary kin is much longer and more complex than we believed.

The debate on the extinction of the Neanderthals, and whether our direct ancestors played any nefarious role in it, has often been linked to the question of when modern Homo sapiens first encroached on their territory. Until now, the earliest undisputed modern human remains in Europe came from Oase Cave in Romania and were dated to around 41,000 ago (some specimens found at sites in Italy and Britain are said to be slightly older, but their age is controversial because the finds could not be directly dated).

Since Neanderthals were all but gone by 39,000 years ago, this chronology suggested their decline was rapid and happened suspiciously close – relatively speaking – to the arrival of the first humans in Europe. But the new finds from Bacho Kiro Cave challenge that picture, says lead researcher Jean-Jacques Hublin, head of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Entrance to Bacho Kiro Cave, site of earliest known Homo sapiens remains in Europe
Entrance to Bacho Kiro Cave, site of earliest known Homo sapiens remains in EuropeTsenka Tsanova, MPI-EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0)

“Pioneer groups brought new behaviors into Europe and interacted with local Neanderthals,” Hublin says. “This early wave largely predates that which led to their final extinction in western Europe 8,000 years later.”

As with many recent discoveries in paleontology, the archaeologists who have been digging at Bacho Kiro since 2015 didn’t come up with well-preserved skeletons or similarly spectacular fossils, but applied advanced scientific techniques to minute finds that may have been easily overlooked or dismissed until recently. At the Bulgarian site, they uncovered a single human tooth and six bone fragments belonging to hominins. The bits of bone were so small they could not be identified by their appearance, but were studied using a new technique that analyzes protein sequences in animal remains and can assign them to one species or another.

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