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Scientists have found the earliest direct evidence for Upper Paleolithic humans in Europe in a Bulgarian cave. Source: Gorodenkoff /Adobe Stock

Breaking News: Earliest Upper Paleolithic Humans in Europe Discovered!

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When did modern humans reach the lands we now call Europe? When did those Late Stone Age humans replace the Neanderthals as the dominant hominins of the region? The answers to these questions about the migration of humans into Europe should be as simple as finding and dating their bones, right? Well, that’s where things get complicated because really the Homo sapiens fossil record from the earliest days of our species in Europe is not the best and the earliest dates for modern humans there, as Europe has been reliant on indirect dating methods . Until now.

Two papers published in the journal Nature today dive into the story of modern humans arriving in the lands we now call Europe and the ways they may have interacted with the Neanderthals already living there. The researchers explore the significance of hominin fossils and artifacts that were discovered in Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria. Their findings suggest that the remains they have found are of the earliest examples of Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age) Homo sapiens in the region.

Photograph of Bacho Kiro Cave excavations in 2019. View of the Niche 1 (left) and Main Sector (right), looking toward the south in the cave. The concrete floor in the center covers the 1970s excavation area. (Fewlass et al. 2020) This site has provided the earliest direct dates for modern humans in Europe.

Photograph of Bacho Kiro Cave excavations in 2019. View of the Niche 1 (left) and Main Sector (right), looking toward the south in the cave. The concrete floor in the center covers the 1970s excavation area. ( Fewlass et al. 2020 ) This site has provided the earliest direct dates for modern humans in Europe.

Excavations at Bacho Kiro Cave

Bacho Kiro Cave is 5 km (3.12 miles) west of Dryanovo in Bulgaria. It is located on the northern slope of the Balkan mountain range. The first excavations at Bacho Kiro cave were in 1938 and 1971-1975. But researchers decided it was time to open up the site and excavate it again from 2015-2019 to gain more accurate dates of human occupation at the site and the creators of the stone tools.

Their excavations unearthed human fossil remains, including bones and teeth. The researchers also found some stone tools which they have classified as Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP) technology. They describe this tool technology as “characterized by blades and tool types typical of the Upper Paleolithic, but with some Levallois forms and faceted platforms that are reminiscent of the preceding Middle Paleolithic and African Middle Stone Age.”

Lithic artifacts found in Bacho Kiro cave. (Hublin et al. 2020)

Lithic artifacts found in Bacho Kiro cave. ( Hublin et al. 2020 )

Animal remains found at Bacho Kiro cave are primarily of the bison, deer, goat, and horse families, but also include some carnivores such as cave bears. They also discovered at the site a number of artifacts that were modified and possibly used as ornaments, such as pendants made from bear teeth . Several of these modified artifacts have traces of red ocher still on them.

A selection of radiocarbon dated bone specimens from Bacho Kiro Cave with surface modifications. (Fewlass et al. 2020)

A selection of radiocarbon dated bone specimens from Bacho Kiro Cave with surface modifications. ( Fewlass et al. 2020 )

The interesting thing about the bear tooth pendants is that they are similar to objects found at known Neanderthal sites from a later period of time. This is evidence of the cultural interaction between the Upper Paleolithic humans in Europe and the Neanderthals who were sharing the region. As the researchers explain :

“The IUP pendants of Bacho Kiro Cave are notably similar to artifacts produced by late Neanderthals of the Châtelperronian layers at Grotte du Renne (France). Whatever the cognitive complexity of the last Neanderthals might have been, the earlier age of the Bacho Kiro Cave material supports the notion that these specific behavioral novelties seen in declining Neanderthal populations resulted from contacts with migrant H. sapiens.”

Upper Paleolithic humans at Bacho Kiro cave made bone tools and personal ornaments, such as pendants and a bead. (Hublin et al. 2020)

Upper Paleolithic humans at Bacho Kiro cave made bone tools and personal ornaments, such as pendants and a bead. ( Hublin et al. 2020 )

Fragmentary Knowledge on the Arrival of Modern Humans in Europe

One of the two papers released today in the journal Nature explains that before this study the earliest examples of modern humans in western Europe came from fragmented specimens at Kent’s Cavern, UK (44,200–41,500 years BP), and Cavallo, Italy (45,000–43,000 years BP). Those dates makes sense, but they may not be 100% accurate because as the current study’s authors write “these dates are based on the archaeological contexts of the specimens rather than direct dating, and—in both cases—the exact stratigraphic origin of the fossils is debated.”

They explain that this indirect dating method means that much of the story of humans expanding into Europe “rests on hypotheses concerning the makers of various so-called ‘transitional’ artefact assemblages at the advent of the Upper Paleolithic.”

What’s the Significance of the Bacho Kiro Cave Discoveries?

The reliance on indirect dating methods is part of why experts have been debating the dates for the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition. This is why the discovery and analysis of human fossils in Bacho Kiro cave provides much needed dating information to help clear up some of the confusion.

Helen Fewlass of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues conducted radiocarbon dating on human teeth and bones at the site to gain a more accurate chronology of the cave’s human occupation. In their paper , they declare that the radiocarbon testing of the remains dates them to between 46,940 and 43,650 years old.  Analysis of the ancient DNA in the bones provides similar dates – from 44,830 to 42,616 years old. This provides a big discovery in regards to Upper Paleolithic humans, as the researchers explain , “to our knowledge, these bones represent the oldest European Upper Paleolithic hominins recovered to date.”

Hominin remains found at the cave site. (Hublin et al. 2020)

Hominin remains found at the cave site. ( Hublin et al. 2020 )

The paper crediting Jean-Jacques Hublin, also of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, as lead investigator explored the bigger picture of their findings for the migration of modern humans into Europe. The stone tools at the site in particular suggest to the researchers that the Bacho Kiro cave site demonstrates “a wave of peopling that precedes the spread of the first Upper Paleolithic bladelet techno-complexes—such as the Early Ahmarian industry in the Levant, the Early Kozarnikan industry in the eastern Balkans and the Protoaurignacian industry in western and central Europe—by several millennia.”

While it is certainly nice to have some direct dating of Upper Paleolithic human remains and see when they truly were in Europe, these studies have also provided a general support of the idea that there was more than one wave of Homo sapiens into Europe and interacting with the Neanderthals who had reached those lands before them.

Top Image: Scientists have found the earliest direct evidence for Upper Paleolithic humans in Europe in a Bulgarian cave. Source: Gorodenkoff /Adobe Stock

By Alicia McDermott

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