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Excavation Finds Earliest Europeans in Russia 45,000 Years Ago

New evidence indicates that Russians were among the earliest Europeans, if not the earliest. Prehistoric teeth and tools excavated from the banks of the Don River show that modern humans arrived in northeastern Europe about 45,000 years ago, earlier than they moved into the west. VOA's David McAlary tells us that the discovery changes ideas about how humans reached Europe after they left their place of origin, Africa.

Scholars from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Colorado have unearthed unmistakable signs of Stone Age human occupation 400 kilometers south of Moscow. They report in the journal "Science" that they found human teeth, stone and bone tools, shell ornaments and carved mammoth ivory in a soil layer scientifically dated at 42,000 to 45,000 years ago.

Although the oldest evidence of modern humans comes from Australia about 50,000 years ago, the Don River discovery is roughly the same age, or even earlier than similar ones in south central and western Europe. "For Europe, this is as early as it gets," he said.

That was University of Colorado scientist John Hoffecker. He says Russia is one of the last places he would have expected people leaving Africa 50,000 years ago to occupy first. "It is a surprise, particularly because they are coming from tropical climates, ultimately, or certainly from lower latitudes, from much warmer places, and anatomically, they were not well suited for northern environments," he said.

Although this archeological dig did not turn up bones, Hoffecker says excavations from later settlements at this site show that inhabitants were built like typical early modern humans of the tropics -- tall and slender, with long arms and legs.

He notes that the key to their adaptation to the colder, drier climate was technical innovation. "Modern humans seem to have been very quickly adapting to these environments. They were doing it all through technology, compensating for their lack of anatomical suitability in this case by essentially remaking themselves technologically," he said.

The Don River finding suggests that the northward human trek from Africa may have taken place along more than one route. A scientist not involved in the study, Texas A&M University anthropologist Ted Goebel, says it calls for updating the conventional notion that the path took them through the Middle East and Turkey across the Bosporus Strait.

"We may have to be rethinking that, and considering that the peopling routes were much more complex. A route via the Caucusus Mountains, or a route from Central Asia even east of the Caspian Mountains and across the southern Urals may be possible as well," he said.

Goebel says there is probably a missing record of modern humans along a migration path through southwestern Asia. "It's going to take the settling down of those areas -- Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan -- for us to be able to learn more about them," he said.