November 3, 2011

Uluzzian was a 'sapiens', not Neanderthal, industry: oldest modern Europeans dated to 44,000 and 42,000 years ago

The Uluzzian baby tooth
I just stumbled upon this BBC article that explains how an Apulian baby tooth (Grotta del Cavallo) and an English adult jaw fragment with three teeth still in (Kents Cavern) it are the oldest known remains of the ancestors of modern Europeans. Until now this honor belonged to Oase 1, a jaw from Romania with no clear industrial associations, dated to either 35,000 or 40,500 BPcal.

Interestingly the Apulian baby tooth may be as old as 45,000 years ago, calling into question potentially the Neanderthal manufacture of Uluzzian industry (supported only by teeth like this one, now demonstrated to be 'sapiens' in fact), which marks this period and the pre-Aurignacian transition between MP and UP in South Italy (Neanderthals in Central Italy retained Mousterian while the North was dominated by proto-Aurignacian, possibly of 'sapiens' manufacture).

The Kent jaw fragment, dated to c. 41,000 years ago,  is more consistent with the dates of expansion of our species in the context of the HE4 cold snap and Aurignacian spread to the Franco-Cantabrian region, which took place c. 41-40 Ka ago (although it may have got some precursors, as suggested by very old proto-Aurignacian dates in Iberia).

Both pieces have been known for decades but only now scientists have been able to research them adequately, it seems.

The appearance of anatomically modern humans in Europe and the nature of the transition from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic are matters of intense debate. Most researchers accept that before the arrival of anatomically modern humans, Neanderthals had adopted several ‘transitional’ technocomplexes. Two of these, the Uluzzian of southern Europe and the Châtelperronian of western Europe, are key to current interpretations regarding the timing of arrival of anatomically modern humans in the region and their potential interaction with Neanderthal populations. They are also central to current debates regarding the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals and the reasons behind their extinction1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. However, the actual fossil evidence associated with these assemblages is scant and fragmentary7, 8, 9, 10, and recent work has questioned the attribution of the Châtelperronian to Neanderthals on the basis of taphonomic mixing and lithic analysis11, 12. Here we reanalyse the deciduous molars from the Grotta del Cavallo (southern Italy), associated with the Uluzzian and originally classified as Neanderthal13, 14. Using two independent morphometric methods based on microtomographic data, we show that the Cavallo specimens can be attributed to anatomically modern humans. The secure context of the teeth provides crucial evidence that the makers of the Uluzzian technocomplex were therefore not Neanderthals. In addition, new chronometric data for the Uluzzian layers of Grotta del Cavallo obtained from associated shell beads and included within a Bayesian age model show that the teeth must date to ~45,000–43,000 calendar years before present. The Cavallo human remains are therefore the oldest known European anatomically modern humans, confirming a rapid dispersal of modern humans across the continent before the Aurignacian and the disappearance of Neanderthals.

I am not sure at the moment but the Kent finding may also challenge the Neanderthal attribution of the Lincombian industry.

Update: the other paper/letter is also published in Nature:

Tom Higham et al. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature 2011. Pay per view. [doi:10.1038/nature10484]


The earliest anatomically modern humans in Europe are thought to have appeared around 43,000–42,000 calendar years before present (43–42kyr cal bp), by association with Aurignacian sites and lithic assemblages assumed to have been made by modern humans rather than by Neanderthals. However, the actual physical evidence for modern humans is extremely rare, and direct dates reach no farther back than about 41–39kyr cal bp, leaving a gap. Here we show, using stratigraphic, chronological and archaeological data, that a fragment of human maxilla from the Kent’s Cavern site, UK, dates to the earlier period. The maxilla (KC4), which was excavated in 1927, was initially diagnosed as Upper Palaeolithic modern human1. In 1989, it was directly radiocarbon dated by accelerator mass spectrometry to 36.4–34.7kyr cal bp2. Using a Bayesian analysis of new ultrafiltered bone collagen dates in an ordered stratigraphic sequence at the site, we show that this date is a considerable underestimate. Instead, KC4 dates to 44.2–41.5kyr cal bp. This makes it older than any other equivalently dated modern human specimen and directly contemporary with the latest European Neanderthals, thus making its taxonomic attribution crucial. We also show that in 13 dental traits KC4 possesses modern human rather than Neanderthal characteristics; three other traits show Neanderthal affinities and a further seven are ambiguous. KC4 therefore represents the oldest known anatomically modern human fossil in northwestern Europe, fills a key gap between the earliest dated Aurignacian remains and the earliest human skeletal remains, and demonstrates the wide and rapid dispersal of early modern humans across Europe more than 40kyr ago.

No mention of Lincombian, just early Aurignacian.

Related posts:

Update (Nov 7): John Hawks makes a strong criticism of the claims of the second paper by Higham et al. and specially of Nature magazine for the way it has sold it to the press. There is no new carbon date of the jaw from England: just new dates for bones above it that question the traditional date. Based on that, all the rest is a mere speculation, maybe justified but not at all as solid as sold to the media. In a sense we are before a new Piltdown Man by the hand of Nature (ok, not that bad but the very same concept: lack of scientific rigor coupled with English chauvinism, etc.)


  1. "We also show that in 13 dental traits KC4 possesses modern human rather than Neanderthal characteristics; three other traits show Neanderthal affinities and a further seven are ambiguous".

    A hybrid between Neanderthal and Modern, exactly as the 'transitional technocomplex' suggests?

  2. I'd rather agree with the authors if the traits are as they say: 13 vs. 3 is not any sort of "hybridization" but of difficulty of ascertainment. H. sapiens teeth do often show some "archaic" traits, specially those from deep in the Pleistocene.

  3. "H. sapiens teeth do often show some 'archaic' traits, specially those from deep in the Pleistocene".

    So wouldn't that suggest that the first 'modern humans' out of Africa were not, in fact, 'fully modern'? The OoA is nowhere near as simple as most would like to believe.

  4. Teeth alone are always confusing (because of individual variability). Oase 1 clusters with H. erectus by this measure (being a very exceptional case among H. sapiens but a possible outcome anyhow).

  5. Hawks makes a strong criticism of Higham's paper... or rather the way that Nature Inc. has sold it to the press. There's no new carbon date nor anything like that: just an estimate based on carbon dates from layers above the jaw.

  6. "There's no new carbon date nor anything like that: just an estimate based on carbon dates from layers above the jaw".

    Thanks for the link. Interesting comments.

    "Teeth alone are always confusing (because of individual variability)".

    Yes. But the variability is strongly influenced by genes.


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