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The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe

Abstract

The earliest anatomically modern humans in Europe are thought to have appeared around 43,000–42,000 calendar years before present (43–42 kyr 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 41–39 kyr 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 36.4–34.7 kyr 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 44.2–41.5 kyr 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 40 kyr ago.

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Figure 1: Morphology of the KC4 maxilla.
Figure 2: Bayesian age model for Kent’s Cavern.
Figure 3: Comparison of direct radiocarbon determinations of AMH bones from European Palaeolithic sites 3, 9, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 with the KC4 model age.

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Acknowledgements

We thank R. Kruszynski for allowing us access to fossils and casts in his care and for his help. S. Taft performed CT scans of the specimens, N. Curtis created a preliminary CT-based model and R. Abel provided CT scans of comparative specimens. We thank M. Bradtmöller of NESPOS for his assistance. H. Liversidge provided specimens of modern teeth. S. Bello helped with the Alicona microscope. A. Coppa made available dental morphological data for upper canines, and R. L. Tompkins donated X-ray photographs of fossil dentitions. M. Skinner, P. Gunz, M. Richards, A. Olejniczak and J.-J. Hublin advised on investigative approaches to the study of the specimen. H. Taylor photographed KC4. We are grateful to the following people for making available CT scans of fossils from Neanderthal sites for viewing on the NESPOS database: R. Macchiarelli and J. F. Tournepiche (La Chaise de Vouthon), R. Macchiarelli and D. Berthet (La Quina), B. Illerhaus (Le Moustier) and P. Semal (Spy). Funding was provided by the Leverhulme Trust and the NERC. We thank all staff at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. Funding was provided for T.H. through the NERC (grant NE/D014077/1). C.S. and T.H. are Members, and T.C. is an Associate Member, of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

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Authors

Contributions

C.S., R.J., E.T. and T.H. initiated the research. C.S., R.J., T.H. and T.C. designed the research. R.J. determined the spatial and depth locations of the AMS-dated bones, identified the material and analysed the site’s lithic remains. T.H. did the AMS dating and Bayesian analysis. T.C. analysed the dental traits. C.F. and S.H. provided comparative dental data. B.S. did the DNA analysis. C.C. reconstructed and conserved the maxilla. B.C. curated the KC4 maxilla. P.O’H. and M.F. did the μCT scanning. F.G. performed the virtual three-dimensional reconstruction of KC4 and prepared the Gough’s Cave CT scans. F.G. and T.C. made the KC4 dental measurements. T.H., C.S. and T.C. wrote the initial draft of the paper. All authors contributed to and helped to edited the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Tom Higham or Chris Stringer.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Acknowledgements, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1-9 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-17. (PDF 10198 kb)

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Higham, T., Compton, T., Stringer, C. et al. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature 479, 521–524 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10484

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