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The Great Exodus

The early humans were pioneers who took advantage of a temporary warm spell to visit Britain during the last ice age.


A fragment of human jaw unearthed in a prehistoric cave in Torquay is the earliest evidence of modern humans in north-west Europe, scientists say. The tiny piece of upper jaw was excavated from Kents Cave on the town's border in the 1920s but its significance was not fully realized until scientists checked its age with advanced techniques that have only now become available. The fresh analysis at Oxford University dated the bone and three teeth to a period between 44,200 and 41,500 years ago, when a temporary warm spell lasting perhaps only a thousand years, made Britain habitable. The age of the remains puts modern humans at the edge of the habitable world at the time and increases the period over which they shared the land with Neanderthals, our close relatives who evolved in Europe and Asia. Modern humans are known to have interbred with Neanderthals, leaving their mark in the genomes of many people alive today, and are implicated in their demise 30,000 years ago, perhaps by outcompeting them for food and other crucial resources.

The remains are close in age to the first examples of Aurignacian culture, exemplified by a range of artefacts from flint and bone tools to figurines and cave paintings that date from 45,000 to 35,000 years ago. "We believe this piece of jawbone is the earliest direct evidence we have of modern humans in northwestern Europe, at a site at the very outermost limits of the initial dispersal of our species," said Tom Higham, deputy director of the Oxford radiocarbon accelerator unit, who led the study. "It confirms the presence of modern humans at the time of the earliest Aurignacian culture, and tells us a great deal about how rapidly our species dispersed across Europe during the last ice age. It also means that early humans must have co-existed with Neanderthals in this part of the world, something which a number of researchers have doubted. "For many years, people thought Europe was a bit of a backwater, a Neanderthal stronghold almost, but the dating we've done suggests that is not so clearcut," he said.


The early humans who arrived in Torquay were pioneers who ventured into Britain along with other animals and either retreated or were wiped out when temperatures plummeted again at the end of the warm spell.


Kemo D. 7

Art by Geoff Taylor
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