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Oldest H. sapien bones found in Bulgaria
Tuesday 12 May 2020

An article by Peter Dockrill on sciencealert.com - Ancient Bones Found in Bulgarian Cave Are Oldest Evidence of Modern Humans in Europe - reports on the oldest bones of Homo sapiens ever found in Europe. Discovered in a Bulgarian cave, the bones provide the earliest known evidence of our species' emergence in the European continent.

Ancient bones Bulgarian Modern Humans Europe Homo sapiens Neanderthal Bulgaria Bacho Kiro Cave
Bacho Kiro Cave in central Bulgaria, situated on the foot of the Balkan Mountains. (Tsenka Tsanova, MPI-EVA Leipzig, CC-BY-SA 2.0).

The appearance and spread of modern humans in Europe is a difficult timeline for researchers to reconstruct, owing to a scarcity of sufficiently ancient remains that have been identified in the fossil record. When modern humans appeared, however, our arrival ultimately sealed the fate of the indigenous Neanderthals who had been in Europe before us, as we then proceeded to swiftly replace them over the course of the next several thousand years.

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Now, the chronology of this mysterious transition during the Initial Upper Palaeolithic period has come into clearer view, thanks to the discovery and dating of H. sapiens remains and other artefacts buried deep within an archaeological site called Bacho Kiro Cave in central Bulgaria, situated on the foot of the Balkan Mountains.

Bacho Kiro has long been known to be a rich deposit of Palaeolithic fossils, with a number of excavations taking place in the 20th century, some of which, during the 1970s, yielded fragmentary human remains that were subsequently lost. In 2015, re-excavations at the site commenced, and the dig revealed a layer of sediment containing the bones.

Ancient bones Bulgarian Modern Humans Europe Homo sapiens Neanderthal Bulgaria Bacho Kiro Cave
Stone artefacts (left) from the Initial Upper Palaeolithic at Bacho Kiro Cave. (Tsenka Tsanova, MPI-EVA Leipzig, CC-BY-SA 2.0). Personal ornaments and bone tools (right, left image) from Bacho Kiro Cave, with similar objects from Grotte du Renne in France (right, right image) (Rosen Spasov and Geoff Smith, MPI-EVA Leipzig, CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Human evolution researcher Frido Welker from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany explains that "Most Pleistocene bones are so fragmented that by eye, one cannot tell which species of animal they represent." In fact, of the human remains detected, only a single tooth could be determined from physical examination alone as belonging to modern humans.

But by using a mass spectrometry technique called ZooMS to find protein sequences matching H. sapiens from hundreds of unidentified bone and tooth fragments, the researchers got five hits dating back to the Initial Upper Palaeolithic. Using a combination of methods incorporating both radiocarbon dating and sequencing of mitochondrial DNA to estimate the fossils' age, the researchers suggest these ancient humans likely occupied the cave from about 45,820 to 43,650 years ago, although some of the remains could date as far back as 46,940 years ago. In other words, these bones represent the oldest European Upper Palaeolithic hominins recovered to date.

In addition to human remains, the researchers also uncovered a huge range of stone tools, along with bone artefacts from 23 different animal species, including shaped pieces such as pendants made from the teeth of cave bears, reminiscent of designs known to have later been produced by Neanderthals in what we now call France, due to probable interaction.

The team go on to suggest that "Whatever the cognitive complexity of the last Neanderthals might have been, the earlier age of the Bacho Kiro Cave material supports the notion that these specific behavioural novelties seen in declining Neanderthal populations resulted from contacts with migrant H. sapiens."

The findings are reported in Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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