Who were Europe’s first humans?

Several sets of teeth suggest that ancient humans roamed Europe thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

A jawbone and its teeth discovered in a South England cave, Kent’s Cavern, in 1927 is more than 41,000 years old, suggests new dates linked to animal remains in the same cave. Meanwhile, two teeth excavated from a southern Italian site, Grotta del Cavallo, in the 1960s and attributed to Neanderthals may instead belong to modern humans. At 43,000 to 45,000 years old, they are the oldest anatomically modern human remains identified in Europe.

Together the two new studies (which are published online today in Nature) emphasize how much archaeologists have to learn about early human forays into Europe. Instead of making a single trek from Africa and the Middle East into Eastern Europe and then striking north and west, the first humans to reach Europe may have expanded in bursts, says Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who was involved in the Kent’s Cavern paper. Brief warm spells would have pushed the hunter-gatherers into new territory. “They followed their food,” he suggested at a press briefing this morning.

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