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Earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe reported

Jan. 11, 2007
Courtesy University of Colorado at Boulder 
and World Science staff
Updated Jan. 12

Mod­ern hu­mans who first arose in Af­ri­ca moved in­to Eu­rope as ear­ly as about 45,000 years ago, a new study in­di­cates.

The ev­i­dence con­sists of stone, bone and ivo­ry tools found un­der a lay­er of an­cient vol­can­ic ash some 250 miles south of Mos­cow, said John Hof­fecker of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­o­rad­o at Boul­der.

An as­sem­blage of bone and ivo­ry ar­ti­facts from the low­est lay­er at Kos­ten­ki that in­cludes a per­fo­rat­ed shell, a prob­a­ble small hu­man fig­ur­ine (three views, top cen­ter) and sev­er­al as­sort­ed awls, mat­tocks and bone points dat­ing to about 45,000 years ago. (Cour­te­sy CU-Boul­der)


“The big sur­prise here is the very ear­ly pres­ence of mod­ern hu­mans in one of the cold­est, dri­est places in Eu­rope,” Hof­fecker added. It’s “one of the last places we would have ex­pected peo­ple from Af­ri­ca to oc­cu­py first.”

The site yielded the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of mod­ern hu­mans in Eu­rope: per­fo­rat­ed shell or­na­ments and a carved piece of mam­moth ivo­ry, he said. 

The lat­ter, found five years ago, seems to be the head of a small hu­man fig­urine—bro­ken and per­haps nev­er fin­ished by its mak­er more than 40,000 years ago, said Hof­fecker. “If con­firmed, it will be the old­est ex­am­ple of fig­ur­a­tive art ev­er dis­cov­ered.”

Hof­fecker and col­leagues at the Rus­sian Acad­e­my of Sci­ences de­tail the find­ings in the Jan. 12 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

The re­search­ers led a dig at Kos­ten­ki, a group of more than 20 sites along the Don Riv­er in Rus­sia that have been stud­ied for dec­ades. Kostenki pre­vi­ously yielded ana­tom­i­cally mod­ern hu­man bones and ar­ti­facts be­tween 30,000 and 40,000 years old, they said. These in­clud­ed the old­est firm­ly dat­ed bone and ivo­ry nee­dles with eye­lets, in­di­cat­ing the in­hab­i­tants were tai­lor­ing furs to sur­vive the cold.

“The ar­ti­facts are un­mis­tak­a­bly the work of mod­ern hu­mans,” Hof­fecker said, adding that his team dat­ed the over­ly­ing sed­i­ment by sev­eral meth­ods.

Ana­tom­i­cally mod­ern hu­mans are thought to have aris­en in sub-Saharan Af­ri­ca around 200,000 years ago.

Kostenki al­so con­tains ev­i­dence that mod­ern hu­mans were rap­id­ly broad­en­ing their di­et to in­clude small mam­mals and fresh­wa­ter foods, an in­di­ca­tion they were “re­mak­ing them­selves tech­no­log­i­cally,” Hof­fecker said. They may have used traps and snares to catch hares and arc­tic fox­es, ex­ploit­ing large ar­eas fair­ly eas­i­ly, he added: “they prob­a­bly set out their nets and traps and went home for lunch.”

Mod­ern hu­mans may have first en­tered this part of Eu­rope be­cause com­peti­tors such as Ne­an­der­thals were ab­sent he­re, Hof­fecker sug­gested. “The Ne­an­der­thals, who had oc­cu­pied Eu­rope for more than 200,000 years, seem to have left the back door open for mod­ern hu­mans.”

Ex­cept for some ear­ly sites in the Near East, the old­est ev­i­dence of mod­ern hu­mans out­side Af­ri­ca comes from Aus­tral­ia rough­ly 50,000 years ago, said Hof­fecker.

In the same is­sue of Sci­ence, re­search­ers led by Fred­er­ick E. Grine of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook pre­sented what they called the first fos­sil ev­i­dence that mod­ern hu­mans left sub-Saharan Af­ri­ca for Eur­a­sia be­tween 65,000 and 25,000 years ago. Some sci­en­tists had ar­gued that this oc­curred a few tens of thou­sands of years ear­li­er.

The ev­i­dence con­sisted of a South Af­ri­can skull, dat­ed as about 36,000 years old and close­ly re­sem­bling those of hu­mans then liv­ing in Eu­rope and far east­ern Asia. These pop­u­la­tions thus “shared a very re­cent com­mon an­ces­tor,” wrote Ted Goebel of Tex­as A&M Uni­ver­si­ty in a com­men­tary in the jour­nal. He wrote that mod­ern hu­mans like­ly first mi­grat­ed out along the South Asian coast and in­to Aus­tral­ia, and on­ly lat­er in­to harsher north­ern zones such as Kos­tenki.


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Homepage image: A research team works at the Kostenki site on the Don River located about 250 miles south of Moscow.

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Modern humans who first arose in Africa moved into Europe as early as about 45,000 years ago, a new study indicates. The evidence consists of stone, bone and ivory tools found under a layer of ancient volcanic ash some 250 miles south of Moscow, said John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado at Boulder. “The big surprise here is the very early presence of modern humans in one of the coldest, driest places in Europe,” Hoffecker added, “one of the last places we would have expected people from Africa to occupy first.” The site yielded the earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe: perforated shell ornaments and a carved piece of mammoth ivory, he said. The latter, found five years ago, seems to be the head of a small human figurine—broken and perhaps never finished by its maker more than 40,000 years ago, said Hoffecker. “If confirmed, it will be the oldest example of figurative art ever discovered.” Hoffecker and colleagues of the Russian Academy of Sciences detail the findings in the Jan. 12 issue of the research journal Science. The researchers led a dig at Kostenki, a group of more than 20 sites along the Don River in Russia that have been studied for decades. Kostenki previously yielded ana tomically modern human bones and artifacts between 30,000 and 40,000 years old, they said. These included the oldest firmly dated bone and ivory needles with eyelets, indicating the inhabitants were tailoring furs to survive the cold. “The artifacts are unmistakably the work of modern humans,” Hoffecker said, adding that his team dated the overlying sediment by several methods. Ana tomically modern humans are thought to have arisen in sub-Saharan Africa around 200,000 years ago. Kostenki also contains evidence that modern humans were rapidly broadening their diet to include small mammals and freshwater foods, an indication they were “remaking themselves technologically,” Hoffecker said. They may have used traps and snares to catch hares and arctic foxes, exploiting large areas fairly easily, he added: “they probably set out their nets and traps and went home for lunch.” Modern humans may have first entered this part of Europe because competitors such as Neanderthals were absent here, Hoffecker suggested. “The Neanderthals, who had occupied Europe for more than 200,000 years, seem to have left the back door open for modern humans.” Except for some early sites in the Near East, the oldest evidence of modern humans outside Africa comes from Australia roughly 50,000 years ago, said Hoffecker.