Letter | Published:

The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe

Nature volume 479, pages 521524 (24 November 2011) | Download Citation


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Report on a fragment of a human jaw. Trans. Proc. Torquay Nat. Hist. Soc. 5, 1–2 (1927)

  2. 2.

    , , & Radiocarbon dates from the Oxford AMS system: Archaeometry datelist 9. Archaeometry 31, 207–234 (1989)

  3. 3.

    et al. An early modern human from the Peştera cu Oase, Romania. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 11231–11236 (2003)

  4. 4.

    & Pleistocene depositional history in a periglacial terrane: a 500 ky record from Kents Cavern, Devon, United Kingdom. Geosphere 3, 199–219 (2007)

  5. 5.

    & in Report of the Ninety-Fifth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 303–306 (Murray, 1927)

  6. 6.

    A collection of Early Upper Palaeolithic artefacts from Beedings, near Pulborough, West Sussex, and the context of similar finds from the British Isles. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 73, 229–325 (2007)

  7. 7.

    La transition du Paléolithique moyen au supérieur dans la plaine septentrionale de l’Europe. Anthropol. Præhist. 119, 5–254 (2008)

  8. 8.

    , & AMS radiocarbon dating of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic bone in the British Isles: improved reliability using ultrafiltration. J. Quaternary Sci. 21, 557–573 (2006)

  9. 9.

    , & AMS radiocarbon dating of ancient bone using ultrafiltration. Radiocarbon 48, 179–195 (2006)

  10. 10.

    , , & Improved collagen extraction by modified Longin method. Radiocarbon 30, 171–177 (1988)

  11. 11.

    Development of the radiocarbon calibration program OxCal. Radiocarbon 43, 355–363 (2001)

  12. 12.

    et al. IntCal09 and Marine09 radiocarbon age calibration curves, 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 51, 1111–1150 (2009)

  13. 13.

    et al. The Greenland ice core chronology 2005, 15–42 ka. Part 1: constructing the time scale. Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 3246–3257 (2006)

  14. 14.

    & A 14C age calibration curve for the last 60 ka: the Greenland-Hulu U/Th timescale and its impact on understanding the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in western Eurasia. J. Hum. Evol. 55, 772–781 (2008)

  15. 15.

    & The chronology and taphonomy of the earliest Aurignacian and its implications for the understanding of Neandertal extinction. J. World Prehist. 13, 1–68 (1999)

  16. 16.

    European early modern humans and the fate of the Neandertals. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 7367–7372 (2007)

  17. 17.

    et al. A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science 328, 710–722 (2010)

  18. 18.

    et al. Tracing genetic change over time using nuclear SNPs in ancient and modern cattle. Anim. Genet. 38, 378–383 (2007)

  19. 19.

    et al. A new direct radiocarbon AMS date for an Upper Palaeolithic human bone from Siberia. Archaeometry 52, 1122–1130 (2010)

  20. 20.

    & La Crouzade V–VI (Aude, France): un des plus anciens fossiles d’anatomie moderne en Europe occidentale. Bull. Mem. Soc. Anthropol. Paris 20, 79–104 (2008)

  21. 21.

    et al. The oldest anatomically modern humans from far southeast Europe: direct dating, culture and behavior. PLoS ONE 6, e20834 (2011)

  22. 22.

    , , , & Radiocarbon dates from the Oxford AMS system: Archaeometry datelist 32. Archaeometry 49 (suppl. 1). S1–S60 (2007)

  23. 23.

    , , & The human cranium from the Peştera Cioclovina Uscată, Romania. Curr. Anthropol. 48, 611–619 (2007)

  24. 24.

    , & Early modern humans from the Peştera Muierii, Baia de Fier, Romania. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 17196–17201 (2006)

  25. 25.

    et al. Direct dating of early Upper Palaeolithic human remains from Mladeč. Nature 435, 332–335 (2005)

Download references


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.

Author information

Author notes

    • Roger Jacobi



  1. Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

    • Tom Higham
  2. The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK

    • Tim Compton
    • , Chris Stringer
    • , Roger Jacobi
    •  & Chris Collins
  3. Department of Prehistory and Europe (Quaternary Section), The British Museum, London N1 5QJ, UK

    • Roger Jacobi
  4. Department of Biology, The Pennsylvania State University, 208 Mueller Laboratory, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • Beth Shapiro
  5. Department of Anthropology, Campus Box 1114, Washington University, St Louis, Missouri 63130, USA

    • Erik Trinkaus
  6. Torquay Museum, 529 Babbacombe Road, Torquay TQ1 1HG, UK

    • Barry Chandler
  7. The Department of Engineering, University of Hull, Kingston upon Hull HU6 7RX, UK

    • Flora Gröning
    •  & Michael Fagan
  8. Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK

    • Simon Hillson
  9. Centre for Anatomical and Human Sciences, Hull York Medical School, The University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD, UK

    • Paul O’Higgins
  10. Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, 1280 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4L9, Canada

    • Charles FitzGerald


  1. Search for Tom Higham in:

  2. Search for Tim Compton in:

  3. Search for Chris Stringer in:

  4. Search for Roger Jacobi in:

  5. Search for Beth Shapiro in:

  6. Search for Erik Trinkaus in:

  7. Search for Barry Chandler in:

  8. Search for Flora Gröning in:

  9. Search for Chris Collins in:

  10. Search for Simon Hillson in:

  11. Search for Paul O’Higgins in:

  12. Search for Charles FitzGerald in:

  13. Search for Michael Fagan in:


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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Tom Higham or Chris Stringer.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Acknowledgements, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1-9 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-17.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.