Kents Cavern is the earliest known human settlement in Europe
Pictures: (top) Kents Cavern Maxilla - courtesy of University of Oxford Press office
A human jawbone, unearthed in Kents Cavern, is between 44,200 and 41,500 years old making it the oldest modern human fossil in northwestern Europe and certainly in Britain according to research published 2nd November 2011 in Nature, the internationally renowned science magazine.
The Kents Cavern jawbone, a maxilla (upper jawbone), was found in 1927 and has been intriguing scientists for decades. In 1989 it was dated at 31,000 years old and tests were carried out recently to determine if it could be Neanderthal.
This latest study was led by Dr Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford and Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. It confirms the jawbone is not Neanderthal but in fact the oldest anatomically modern human fossil ever to have been discovered in this part of Europe.
The bone was originally dated in Oxford, but doubts were later raised about the reliability of the date because traces of modern glue (used to conserve the bone after discovery) were found on the surface. As the remaining uncontaminated area of bone was deemed too small to re-date, members of the team searched through the excavation archives and collection in the Torquay Museum to obtain samples of animal bone from depths recorded as above and below the spot where the maxilla was found.
They obtained radiocarbon dates for the bones of wolf, deer, cave bear and woolly rhinoceros, found close to the maxilla, of between 50,000 and 26, 000 years ago. Using a Bayesian statistical modelling method, they were then able to calculate an age for the maxilla of between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.
The new dates placed the jawbone into a period when Neanderthals were still surviving in Europe. It therefore became crucial to confirm the original 1927 identification of the bone as modern human. Natural History Museum scientists
Dr Tim Compton and Professor Chris Stringer were able to use a virtual three-dimensional model based on the CT scan of the jawbone, undertaken by researchers from the University of Hull and the Hull York Medical School, to carry out a detailed analysis of the fossil. They found early modern human characteristics in all but three of the 16 dental characteristics, confirming that the fossil is a modern human. Team member Dr Beth Shapiro of Pennsylvania State University earlier had tried to extract mitochrondrial DNA from one of the teeth, but there were insufficient amounts for valid DNA sequencing.
Professor Higham said: ’We believe this piece of jawbone is the earliest direct evidence we have of modern humans in northwestern Europe, at a site at the very outermost limits of the initial dispersal of our species. It confirms the presence of modern humans at the time of the earliest Aurignacian culture, and tells us a great deal about how rapidly our species dispersed across Europe during the last Ice Age.
"It also means that early humans must have co-existed with Neanderthals in this part of the world, something which a number of researchers have doubted."
Jawbone story at Nature.com
Jawbone story at BBC News
Jawbone story at Natural History Museum