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Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour

Abstract

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.

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Figure 1: Occlusal view of the deciduous molars from the Uluzzian layers of Grotta del Cavallo (Apulia, southern Italy).
Figure 2: Shape–space PCA plots of dM 1 crown outlines and dM 2 cervical outlines.
Figure 3: Cross-sections of Cavallo-B and Cavallo-C for two-dimensional enamel thickness analysis.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Puglia which facilitated the excavation of Grotta del Cavallo over the years. We also thank M. A. Gorgoglione who supported and helped in the collection of samples for 14C dating and encouraged the collaboration with the University of Siena for the study of the archaeological remains. P. Boscato, H. Klempererova, F. Ranaldo and S. Ricci have all helped in aspects of the research and are especially thanked. We are grateful to G. Gruppioni for providing the Italian modern human sample used in this work. We thank M. Francken, B. Trautmann, I. Trautmann, H. Scherf, M. Dockner and R. Ginner for technical assistance. We thank F. L. Bookstein for suggestions on statistics. Access to the fossil specimens was made possible by the Croatian National History Museum, the French Musée National de Préhistoire, the French Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paleoanthropology, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen and the NESPOS Database 2011 (https://www.nespos.org/display/openspace/Home). We acknowledge the Centre de Microtomographie (Université de Poitiers), the Vienna micro-CT Laboratory (University of Vienna), VISCOM AG Hannover, the Paleoanthropology High Resolution Computing Tomography Laboratory (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility beamline ID17, the AST-RX platform (French Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle) and the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU). The authors would like to thank T. Higham and R. E. M. Hedges for their input in the radiocarbon dating part of the project, for important comments and proofreading this manuscript. The radiocarbon dating was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) NRCF programme. K.D. is part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This work was supported by the NSF 01-120 Hominid Grant 2007, A.E.R.S. Dental Medicine Organisations GmbH FA547013, the Fondation Fyssen, the DFG INST 37/706-1 FUGG and the NERC Grant (NE/D014077/1).

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S.B., F.M., K.H. and G.W.W. initiated and organized the project. S.B., C.C.B., P.B., J.S., I.P., K.H. and G.W.W. collected the fossils and modern human sample. S.B. and C.F. carried out the dental measurements. S.B. and M.C. analysed the data. K.D. initiated and performed the radiocarbon dating project. S.B., K.D., C.F., O.K., M.C., S.C., A.R., K.H. and G.W.W. discussed the results. S.B., K.D., C.F., M.C., S.C., A.R., K.H. and G.W.W. wrote and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Stefano Benazzi.

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Benazzi, S., Douka, K., Fornai, C. et al. Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour. Nature 479, 525–528 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10617

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