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Nature: Jawbone from Devon provides new clues about early humans

Posted on 3 November 2011

Palaeo have played a key role in an international project to find out more about when our earliest ancestors arrived in Europe.

Kents Cavern CT-based three-dimensional model

The research focuses on a fragment of jawbone found in Kent’s Cavern near Torquay in Devon in 1927. The bone was originally dated in Oxford in 1989 and was thought to be about 35,000 years old.

But in 2006, doubt was cast on the dating when it was established that modern glue had been used to conserve the bone after its discovery. Dr Flora Gröning, then a PhD student, and her supervisor, Paul O’Higgins, Professor of Anatomy at HYMS, worked with Michael Fagan, Professor of Medical and Biological Engineering, at the University of Hull to produce a microCT Scan of the fragment.

The scan confirmed that the fragment had been assembled incorrectly, and enabled researchers to construct an accurate 3D model of the jawbone. This work enabled the team, led by the University of Oxford and the Natural History Museum, in London, to prove that the bone is significantly older than first thought – pushing back the arrival of modern humans into northwest Europe by between 10,000 and 13,000 years.

It also offers new evidence supporting theories that early humans co-existed with Neanderthals in this part of the world, a fact which is often disputed by researchers.

Professor Fagan says: “We were approached because of our expertise in microCT imaging of bone, and were able to use the scan data to fully investigate the fragment and reconstruct it correctly in the computer, without damaging it or physically taking it apart.

“The University has a particular interest and expertise in understanding how bones, and skulls in particular, work and investigating their form and function. This is a fascinating research project, that moves us forward in our understanding of the origins of modern humans arriving in Europe and we’re very pleased to have played a part in it.”

Professor O’Higgins adds,  “The work carried out at York and Hull demonstrates the value of a truly interdisciplinary approach to the study of human evolution and reflects the aims of our newly established York Centre for Human Palaeo-ecology and Evolutionary Origins (PALAEO- It has shed new light on when modern humans first came to inhabit north-western Europe and helps explain previously puzzling aspects of the archaeological record’.

The new dating evidence could solve the apparent discrepancy between the known dates of the Aurignacian period, in which artefacts and tools thought to be produced by the earliest modern humans in Europe had much older dates than their rare skeletal remains. Aurignacian tools and ornaments were dated as early as 44,000 years ago. Previous attempts to date relevant human remains resulted in dates that reached no further than between 41,000 and 39,000 years old, indicating a significant gap.

The team’s full research findings are published today in the journal Nature.