New Evidence Ages Modern Europeans

By Bower, B. | Science News, December 16, 1989 | Go to article overview
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New Evidence Ages Modern Europeans


Bower, B., Science News


New Evidence Ages Modern Europeans

Seven bits of charcoal, excavated from two caves in northern Spain and analyzed with a recently developed variation of radiocarbon dating, may herald a major shift in the debate over the origins of anatomically modern humans in Europe. A new study suggests that stone tools and other remains of the Aurignacian culture, generally attributed to the handiwork of the earlist European Homo sapiens sapiens, date to nearly 40,000 years ago in western Europe -- about 6,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The results challenge the widespread assumption that a gap of several thousand years existed between the end of western Europe's Mousterian culture, characterized by simple stone tools linked to the Neanderthals, and the Aurignacian entrance into the same region, says James L. Bischoff of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. Bischoff and four Spanish colleagues report their findings in the December JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SCIENCE.

Aurignacian technology apparently spread westward from eastern Europe, where it dates to about 43,000 years ago, much faster than usually thought, the researchers contend. Thus, modern humans may have abruptly replaced Neanderthals in southwestern Europe.

Disputes over the evolutionary relationship of Neanderthals to modern humans remain far from settled (SN: 2/27/88, p.138), but the new evidence "opens the debate to a wide variety of possibilities," says Lawrence G. Straus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. For example, he writes in the Nov. 30 NATURE, if Aurignacian skills developed at roughly the same time throughout Europe, Neanderthals may have evolved directly into anatomically modern Cro-Magnons with little or no interbreeding with Asian and African populations of H. sapiens sapiens.

This contrasts with the currently popular view that Neanderthals were a dead-end branch of humanity replaced by modern humans, who originated in Africa and spread throughout the world.

"If the Spanish dates are accurate, they represent something revolutionary," says Randall White of New York University in New York City.

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