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Scientists Find Remains of Earliest Known Europeans - 2003-09-24

U.S. and European scientists have found remains of the earliest known modern Europeans. The head and face bones are from the time of the Neanderthals and have yielded insights into human evolution.

Recreational cave explorers discovered an ancient human jaw and skull fragments last year in Romania's Carpathian Mountains. Chemical analysis by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis dates them back about 35,000 years.

"This makes them the oldest modern human fossils from Europe," he said. "They are not the oldest modern humans, but the oldest modern humans in Europe."

The researchers classify them as modern because most of the jawbone and skull traits are similar to other early modern humans found in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Europe. These include the distinctive projecting chin and lack of a big brow ridge. But the bones also show that early modern humans were not quite as modern as you and I. What sets them apart are some features associated with more anatomically primitive people. Mr. Trinkaus and colleagues from Romania, Portugal, and The Netherlands describe them in the journal Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences.

For example, the jaw and its molar or chewing teeth are bigger than ours. Mr. Trinkaus says this reinforces earlier evidence that modern humans did not suddenly appear and remain as they are through today, but instead have evolved significantly.

"There has been evidence before, indirect evidence, that there have been subtle changes in the size of the human face and and some details of anatomy, particularly in Europe over the last 25,000 to 30,000 years," he said. "This pushes it back another 5,000 to 10,000 years and very clearly makes the point the aspects I'm talking about, particularly the teeth, are actually outside the ranges of variation of living humans."

All of this suggests to Mr. Trinkaus and his colleagues that early modern Europeans interbred with anatomically older people with whom they shared territory, but who later became extinct.

"Given where they are in time and place, they also reinforce the idea that is documented elsewhere in molecular and fossil evidence that as modern humans spread, certainly across eastern Europe, they intermixed with local groups of archaic humans, in this case Neanderthals," said Mr. Trinkaus.

An international team of scientists is studying the Romanian cave where the jaw and skull bones were found to determine if it was a primitive burial place.