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Headlines Published on 05 February 2007

Title European research uncovers clues to earliest Europeans

European researchers have unearthed pieces of a skull belonging to one of the earliest Europeans known to exist. An archaeological team co-chaired by Professor Joao Zilhao of the University of Bristol discovered the cranial fragments in a cave in Romania, which is known to contain specimens dating back to the beginning of modern humans’ time in Europe. Researchers were surprised to discover that the 40 000 year-old skull contains features attributed both to modern humans and Neanderthals, suggesting interbreeding between the two species. Their findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US).

The human remains were unearthed in a cave in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania.  © Matt+
The human remains were unearthed in a cave in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania.
Professor Zilhao, accompanied by Professor Erik Trinkaus of Washington University (US), led a team of European researchers studying the population dynamics of modern humans, as they advanced into Europe. The research team was exploring the Peçtera cu Oase, or the Cave with Bones, in southwestern Romania, when they came across the important find.

Radiocarbon dating places the skull fragments in the Late Pleistocene era at least. The reconstructed skull, dubbed Oase 2, was compared with another sample found in the cave; this sample is 40,500 years old. They determined that both samples were approximately the same age, making them the earliest modern human remains discovered in Europe.

The most scientifically intriguing aspect of the find is the fact that the skull contains features not normally associated with modern humans. Specifically, the exceptionally large upper molars and frontal flattening are characteristics more reminiscent of Neanderthals.

“Such differences raise important questions about the evolutionary history of modern humans. They could be the result of evolutionary reversal or reflect incomplete palaeontological sampling of Middle Paleolithic human diversity,” Professor Zilhao said.

He clarified that "the ultimate resolution of these issues must await considerations of larger samples of European early modern humans and chronologically intervening specimens. But this fossil is a major addition to the growing body of fossil, genetic and archaeological evidence indicating significant levels of biological and cultural interaction between modern humans and the anatomically archaic populations (including the Neanderthals) they met along the way as they spread from Africa into Eurasia."

Careful analysis of the findings has led researchers to believe that modern humans continued to evolve even after arriving in Europe. Although confirmation of their hypothesis rests on the discovery of additional specimens, the researchers are confident that the find constitutes a ‘major addition’ to the fossil, genetic and archaeological evidence of interaction between modern and archaic humans in Europe.

More information:

  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article
  • Social sciences and humanities on Europa
  • Social sciences in FP7

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