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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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.
This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Acknowledgements, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1-9 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-17.
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A parsimonious neutral model suggests Neanderthal replacement was determined by migration and random species drift
Nature Communications (2017)