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New light on first Europeans

When did Homo sapiens first settle in Europe? Conventional wisdom has long been that we arrived during the 40,000s, then replaced the indigenous Neanderthals in relatively short order. As the pace of research has accelerated, these scenarios have been muddied. We now have genetic evidence for at least sporadic interbreeding between the Neanderthals and us.

Now a handful of sites in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic dating to between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago have hinted that the takeover by Homo sapiens was not so straightforward. For example, the partial skull and skeleton of an anatomically modern human found in the Zlaty Kün cave in the Czech Republic has been redated from 15,000 years ago to at least 45,000 BP. And her genetic makeup shows absolutely no genetic continuity with modern Europeans. Other sites, such as Pestera cu Oase in Romania and Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria (pictured), have also yielded modern humans of about the same date. Again, their genetic profiles bear no resemblance to those of contemporary Europeans and have left no other trace in Europe.

The spread of Homo sapiens into Europe may have been a matter of sporadic incursions rather than a single powerful migration. Many of these pulses north and west may have failed when small groups perished. But how did anatomically modern humans eventually prevail? Most likely, we were better at exploiting the landscape and hunted more effectively – changes in modern human behaviour, such as more efficient planning and fully articulate speech and language may also have led to success during a period of fluctuating temperatures.

Image: Inside Bulgaria’s Bacho Kiro cave.


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