The First Modern Humans in Europe? A Closer Look at the Dating Evidence from the Swabian Jura (Germany)

By Verpoorte, A. | Antiquity, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The First Modern Humans in Europe? A Closer Look at the Dating Evidence from the Swabian Jura (Germany)


Verpoorte, A., Antiquity


Introduction

With its age of 34 000-36 000 [sup.14.C] years BP, the recently discovered human mandible at Pestera cu Oase in south-western Romania constitutes the earliest 'modern' human thus far known from the European Palaeolithic (Trinkaus et al. 2003). According to Trinkaus et al. (2003:11235), the find shows 'the degree to which early modern humans were not particularly modern'. While Trinkaus and colleagues refer to modernity in a biological sense, recent archaeological studies have focused on the relationship between anatomically modern humans and the emergence of modern forms of behaviour in the European archaeological record (e.g. Zilhao & d'Errico 1999; d'Errico et al. 2003).

Origins of modern behaviour and modern humans are also discussed with regard to records from other parts of the world. Otte & Derevianko (2001) for example refer to possible origins in central Asia when describing Aurignacian industries from the Altai region. The early colonisation of Australia, implying a planned voyage across open sea, is interpreted as evidence of modern behaviour (e.g. Noble & Davidson 1996). McBrearty & Brooks (2000) argue that components of modern human behaviour emerge widely separated in space and time in the African record, not as the Upper Palaeolithic 'package' supposedly characterising the European situation.

Recently, Conard & Bolus (2003) tried to integrate the data from their working area in southern Germany within the body of accumulating data on the Aurignacian, early modern humans and symbolic behaviour from Europe. Conard and colleagues have proposed two models:

1. the Danube Corridor model that postulates that modern humans rapidly entered the interior of Europe via the Danube valley (Conard & Bolus 2003: 333; also Davies 2001);

2. the Kulturpumpe model that presents hypotheses to explain the early advent of fully modern behaviour and the cultural innovations of the Aurignacian and Gravettian in the Swabian Jura (Conard & Bolus 2003: 333, 363-4).

These two models hinge to a significant extent on reliable dating and are readily refutable if the early dates for modern humans and Upper Palaeolithic innovations can be shown to be wrong (Conard & Bolus 2003: 364). Conard & Bolus (2003) argue that the early Aurignacian, anatomically modern humans and a modern behavioural repertoire are present by 40 ka BE They refer to [sup.14.C] dates between 36 and 40 ka BP for the site of Geissenklosterle as roughly consistent with the mean age of 40.2 [+ or -]1.5 ka BP indicated by TL dating on burnt flints (reported by Richter et al. 2000).

How old is the evidence from the Swabian Jura? How can the [.sup.14.C] dates be interpreted? Does the evidence support the two models? Those are the questions that this paper addresses. Starting from the chronological relationships between anatomically modern humans, the earliest Aurignacian and the oldest evidence for symbolic behaviour, as construed by Conard & Bolus (2003), the rich Swabian record provides an ideal context to address several of the implicit assumptions about these relationships. After a detailed discussion of the Swabian evidence and its interpretation, I try to make some general comments on the study of early modern humans in Europe.

Before looking at the dating evidence from the Swabian Jura in detail, some comments on my position in the controversy over [sup.14.C] dating, calibration, calendrical conversion and comparison with other dating methods are necessary. All the dates mentioned below are in [sup.14.C] years BE Though conversion to calendrical years is practised, I did not try to 'calibrate' the age estimates published by Conard & Bolus (2003), because of the lack of consensus on the issue (see for example van der Plicht 2000 versus van Andel et al. 2003). The discussion below is also limited to the use of [sup.14.C] dating (both conventional and AMS). …

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