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Torquay man

By Dave Armstrong - 03 Nov 2011 15:33:0 GMT
Torquay man

An interior view of Kent's Cavern in England, where a piece of jawbone belonging to an early modern human was found. A piece of jawbone excavated from this prehistoric cave is the earliest evidence for modern humans in Europe, according to an international science team. New dating of the bone, which shows that it is between 44,000 and 41,000 years old, is expected to help scientists pin down how quickly modern humans spread across Europe during the last Ice Age. It also helps to confirm the much-debated theory that early humans coexisted with Neanderthals. More information is online via The Eberly College of Science; Credit: Steve B. Chamberlain.

A limestone cave full of stalagmites in Torquay has given up a jawbone from at least 41,000 years ago. The lead points about such a discovery are:

Possibilities of Neanderthal co-existence;

Ice Age distribution of Homo sapiens nomads throughout Europe;

Dating of the Aurignacian Culture within SW Asia and Europe, (whose artifacts so far have pre-dated the very rare fossils found with them);

Links (see below) with a related find from Southern Italy.

The jaw with three teeth was originally thought to be younger, but advanced dating and scanning of many related materials indicate our own species. The earlier date out-dates the 35,000 years originally suggested in 1989! The bone was actually found 10 feet 6 inches down in limestone deposits, in 1927.

Modern techniques are at the crux of these problems of mis-dating. England may have the first use of the latest techniques here, which will now be applied to many other ancient fossils. For example, from the Grotta del Cavallo in Apulia, Italy, Vienna University have re- aligned thinking on some Neanderthal remains. The milk teeth found there in 1964 have been declared Homo sapiens teeth using, again, two advanced computer technique.

One of the three Cavallo teeth

One of the three Cavallo teeth. Mesial view of the specimen Cavallo-B (deciduous left upper first molar), the first European anatomically modern human. The white bar in the figure is equivalent to 1 cm; Credit: Stefano Benazzi.

Linked with the English finds by Katerina Douka at the University of Oxford, both finds are claiming to be the earliest European human finds. Hopefully, competition is not an issue here. If Katerina could use her fascinating shell dating techniques on the English finds, a strict, comparative regime could be established for all European and Asian fossils, but maybe that is asking too much.

We'll give the last word to Gerhard Weber of the Core Facility for Micro-Computed Tomography and deputy head of the Department of Anthropology at University of Vienna, "Human fossil material is very rare, particularly well preserved deciduous teeth. It is only thanks to the collaboration of several European institutions that fossil remains were accessible. The re-evaluation of the Grotta del Cavallo material was only made possible through technical innovations developed in the last decade, known as 'Virtual Anthropology'. These new techniques developed for dental morphometrics and also new radiocarbon dating will help to address taxonomic questions associated with other contentious human fossil remains."

A photograph of the maxilla including three teeth, of the earliest known modern human in Europe, discovered during excavations at Kent's Cavern

A photograph of the maxilla including three teeth, of the earliest known modern human in Europe, discovered during excavations at Kent's Cavern, Devon, England, in 1927. Credit: Chris Collins (NHM) and Torquay Museum

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Topics: Fossils