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The tooth before it was removed. Credit: Musee Homme de Tautavel

560,000-year-old tooth found by student may be one of the oldest human remains in France

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A volunteer archaeologist by the name of Valentin Loescher, aged 20, has found an ancient tooth at the Arago Cave, near Tautavel, south western France. He was working as part of an archaeological dig at the site alongside Camille Jacquey, 16, when he discovered it. The tooth, which has been dated back 560,000 years, could potentially be one of the oldest human remains in France, predating the Tautavel man, a prehistoric hunter found at the same location, by 100,000 years.

Reconstructed skeleton of Tautavel Man (Wikimedia Commons)

Reconstructed skeleton of Tautavel Man (Wikimedia Commons)

According to a report published in The Guardian, Loescher said he had been brushing a mound of soil in the cave, at a location where there were lots of remains of animals. That is when he found a small fragment of a tooth. He took it to Amélie Vialet, a paleoanthropologist overseeing the excavation. It was then examined with the aid of a computer and subsequently sent to a laboratory.

The tooth is a lower central incisor and has been dubbed Arago 149, as it is the 149 th human artefact discovered at the site. In July 2012, a lower jawbone was discovered.

Lower jaw bone of Homo erectus from Tautavel, France (Wikimedia Commons)

Lower jaw bone of Homo erectus from Tautavel, France (Wikimedia Commons)

“A large adult tooth – we can’t say if it was from a male or female – was found during excavations of soil we know to be between 550,000 and 580,000 years old, because we used different dating methods” said Ms Vialet, speaking to Agence France-Presse. “This is a major discovery because we have very few human fossils from this period in Europe.”

Yves Coppens, professor of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France, added that teeth can tell archaeologists a whole range of things, such as the eating habits of the person concerned and also potentially the identity, from the DNA. Professor Coppens was a member of the original excavation at the cave in the 1970’s.

The Arago Cave was first excavated in 1964, although no significant finds were discovered until 1969. Tautavel man lived 450,000 years ago and was a subspecies of Homo erectus. A total of 60,000 artifacts have been discovered at the site since the cave was first investigated and the prehistoric humans discovered there are the oldest human remains ever discovered in Europe. The cave is located on high ground in the southern Corbières region, overlooking the Tautavel Valley. The original occupants would have had a magnificent view of the valley, including of the river below where the animals they hunted came to drink, included horses, bison, deer and rhinoceros. The climate was fairly cold at that time, although it was also fairly arid.

Verdouble creek beneath Arago-cave, near Tautavel (Perpignan-region), France (Wikimedia Commons)

Verdouble creek beneath Arago-cave, near Tautavel (Perpignan-region), France (Wikimedia Commons)

Tautavel man was discovered by Professor Henri de Lumley on 22 nd July 1971 and named Homo erectus tautavelensis in order to differentiate the remains from other examples of Homo erectus found in Africa. He had sunken eyes, large jutting eyebrows and prominent jaws without a chin and stood 1.65 metres tall (5 feet 5 inches), weighing around 45 to 55 kg. He had a cranial capacity of 1,100 cubic centimetres, inferior to that of Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens. The cranial capacity of modern humans is 1,400 cubic centimetres. Human bones found in the cave indicate that Tautavel man may have practised cannibalism.

Featured image: The tooth before it was removed. Credit: Musee Homme de Tautavel

By Robin Whitlock

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Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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