Jawbones with Teeth
Jawbones with Teeth Torquay Museum/Oxford Universi

A study conducted at the Oxford University has revealed theimportant new radiocarbon dates for two milk teeth and a jawbone, which sheds light on the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe. Dr. Katerina Douka, a lead member of an international research team investigating two infant teeth, excavated from a prehistoric cave in Italy, points out that the teeth belong to anatomically modern people and not Neanderthal as previously thought. This research, the first part of the two separate research projects, was published in the journal Nature. The latest dating techniques placed the teeth at 43,000-45,000 years old - making them the earliest remains of modern humans in the whole of Europe.

On analysing the teeth again with the help of digital scanning and comparing the scans with a wide range of human remains, the team confirmed that the Cavallo teeth belong to modern humans. The implications this finding carries for the understanding of the development of fully "modern" behaviour in Europe is tremendous.

The study was made easy by the comprehensive programme of radiocarbon dating, which provided the key chronology for the findings. However, previous dates for the Uluzzian were problematic and affected by contamination. The small size of the teeth and the lack of collagen in them led Dr. Douka to develop a new means of carbon dating which focused on the method of dating of marine shell beads found in the same archaeological levels as the teeth.

"Radiocarbon dating of Palaeolithic material is difficult because the levels of remaining radiocarbon are very low and contamination can be a serious problem; our new approach using marine shell eliminates this issue. Shell beads are important objects of body ornamentation and have allowed us to date reliably the presence of the earliest currently-known Homo sapiens settlers of Europe," Lead Researcher Douka said in a statement.

While in a separate study, published in Nature, a team of scientists led by Oxford Professor Thomas Higham and Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum, London, obtained new dating evidence for a tiny piece of jawbone unearthed from Kent's Cavern in Devon, England. The jawbone, which was also found to belong to modern people and not Neanderthals, is believed to be older than previously thought - at between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.

However, the new dates, established using the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, are of high importance as they suggest that modern humans arrived in Europe much earlier than previously believed. Perhaps this indicates that the anatomically modern humans are likely to have co-existed with Neanderthals in this part of the world for several thousand years.

"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," Higham said.