Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Oldest Human Remains In Europe

The human fossil from Kent's Cavern, Torquay, Devonshire, UK
In February, 2002, a team of speleologists investigating a cave in Romania (the precise location is kept secret) discovered a mysterious skull, jaw and single mandible. The cave came to be known as Pestera cu Oase or the Cave of Bones, and the remains were taken away for analysis. The bones displayed a strange mix of human and Neanderthal characteristics and were subsequently identified as archaic Homo sapiens. What made these bones special though, was that they were the oldest known human remains in Europe at 40,000 years old.

This date quickly became the established point in time when Europe was first colonised by our species. However recent fossil analysis suggests that Europe may have been colonised far earlier than previously thought. In 1927, a jaw bone was discovered at Kent's Cavern, near Torquay, Devonshire, UK during an excavation by the Torquay Natural History Museum. The fragment was dated to 35,000 years old. Yet there were always doubts about this statistic.

The jaw was preserved under 10 feet and six inches of stalagmite deposits and was therefore very fragile; a layer of glue was used to hold the fragments together. Scientists believe that this could have affected the date. Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State University, led a research team to solve the mystery by using accurate, modern technology, as opposed to the out-moded equipment of 1989 used to date the fossil originally.

Unfortunately, there were no areas on the bone that were uncontaminated by the glue. Therefore the team had to find a new method to date the specimen accurately. They extracted bones of Ice Age mammals from the same sedimentary layers as the jaw and obtained accurate dates for these with an age range of 26,000 to 50,000 years old. Finally, using a method of calculating uncertainty overlaps, called Bayesian statistical modelling, they obtained a date for the jaw of between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.

This jaw is at least 4000 years older than the Pestera cu Oase remains. They are also on the opposite side of Europe, suggesting that the continent could have been colonised even earlier. The bones also prove that early humans in Europe did indeed coexist with Neanderthals. A series of stone tools dating to 44,000 years old were found near far younger skeletons. This jaw shows that the Aurignacian period, a cultural time zone in Europe, began earlier than was thought. It is hoped that more fossil evidence will be found to support this new theory.