Hominin updates

A new approach to 14C dating at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford UK, combined with detailed analysis of human teeth to distinguish fully modern human remains from those of Neanderthals has pushed back the date and pace of migration into Europe by people whose tools define the Aurignacian and Italian Uluzzian technologies. These are the earliest modern-human cultures found in Europe, but some of the tools are similar to those produced by Neanderthals (Châtelperronian culture), raising the possibility of transfer of technologies between the two groups. So, without confirmation from human remains of the anatomical affinities the would be doubts about using tools of these kinds to signify the presence at a site of full modern humans. Teeth found decades ago at caves in SW England and southern Italy prove, on detailed comparative study, to be from ‘moderns’ (Higham, T. And 12 others 2011. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature, v. 479, p. 521-524; Benazzi, S. And 13others 2011. Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour. Nature, v. 479, p. 525-528).The new carbon-isotope method  efficiently eliminates chemical contamination of material by post-fossilisation processes and so tend to increase the measured age of samples. The two studies produced exciting results: dates of occupation between 42-43 and 43-45 ka from SW England and southern Italy respectively. Together with results from other sites throughout central and southern Europe, the discovery shows that widespread colonisation was accomplished in three to five thousand years by migrants probably from the Levant, who may have travelled along three routes fanning out from the Bosporus in modern Turkey: along the Danube; along the Adriatic coast; from southern Greece to the ‘heel’ of Italy.

In early 2011 a group of archaeologists led by Simon Armitage of the University of Birmingham, UK reported stone tools from a cave in the United Arab Emirates for which they derived possible ages of 125, 95 and 40 ka (see Human migration in EPN for January 2011). The older dates were coeval with anatomically modern humans in the Levant, but the tools themselves showed features that could not be matched decisively with those from any other sites, including those in the Leant, though they most resembled collections from East and NE Africa. Armitage and colleagues suggested that the people who occupied the UAE cave had crossed the Red Sea at the time of the glacial maximum around 130 ka, at a time of unprecedented low sea level. A recent paper adds considerable weight to this idea (Rose, J.I. and 9 others 2011. The Nubian Complex of Dhofar, Oman: An African Middle Stone Age Industry in Southern Arabia at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0028239). Jeffrey Rose, also of the University of Birmingham, and colleagues from Ukraine, US, UK, Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia excavated site in Dhofar southern Oman, much closer to the Straits of Bab el Mandab than the UAE. Chert tools found in the area are of the Levallois type, specifically resembling closely those found widely in the Nile Valley of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia, in deposits dated between 128 to 74 ka. The Omani tools yielded an optically stimulated luminescence age of about 106 ka. This nicely confirms that Africans had moved far beyond the confines of their home continent by the last interglacial episode, with the route to South Asia open to them along the shores of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. However, the route that they had taken could equally have been around the head of the Red Sea as across the Bab el Mandab.

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