The Oldest European Homo sapiens

Excavations at Bacho Kiro Cave, in Bulgaria

Last week Jean-Jacques Hublin, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Helen Fewlass who is also at MPI, and their colleagues published in the journals Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution reports of their findings in the Bacho Kiro cave site in Bulgaria. They have discovered a 46,000 year old tooth and a handful of other remains as well as stone tools of Homo sapiens. Specifically, the radiocarbon-dates are from 46,790 to 42,810 years old. This makes these findings the oldest direct evidence of our species’ presence in Europe.

Bacho Kiro Cave Site, site of the current study

This time period is important. The last evidence we know of currently of Neanderthals existing in Europe come from around 40,000 years ago. This finding outlines the presence of our species Homo sapiens and Neanderthals both occupying Eurasia during this era. Any remains older were likely Neanderthal, and any remains sooner than the 40,000 year mark are likely our own. We aren’t so sure how long the two species cohabited Europe, which makes this finding of remains along with stone tools even more impactful.

Stone artifacts from the Initial Upper Paleolithic at Bacho Kiro Cave. 1-3, 5-7: Pointed blades and fragments from Layer I; 4: Sandstone bead with morphology similar to bone beads; 8: The longest complete blade.

At Bacho Kiro, bear teeth pendants, bone leather-working tools, ivory beads were found. The stone tools like long flint blades, were made by retouching. Similarities in to these tools as well as bear-tooth pendants have been found at many Eurasian sites spanning between 45,000 and 43,000 years ago.

This culture has been called “Initial Upper Paleolithic,” and it is not entirely clear whether this culture was Neanderthal or Homo sapiens. Shara Bailey, a co-author of the study commented on the Locard’s Exchange Principle, “There are similarities in manufacturing techniques used by Homo sapiens at Bacho Kiro and Neanderthals elsewhere, which makes clear that there was cultural transmission going on between the two groups.”

But they also found flint-knapping techniques belonged to Homo sapiens prehistoric culture. Bailey states that Homo sapiens were mostly responsible for these ‘modern’ creations. The similarities between these and other sites in which Neanderthals made similar things are due to interaction between the populations, in fact Neanderthals likely copied these advancements.

That’s not to say Neanderthals weren’t advanced. We know Neanderthals painted extensively from 114,000 years ago at Cueva de los Aviones to at least 64,000 years ago in Maltravieso. At Bacho Kiro, the oldest strata yielding artifacts is about 51,000 years told. It yielded clearly Neanderthal sharpened flake tools knapped using the Levallois technique. But the Homo sapiens fossil tooth at Bacho Kiro is found alongside the long flint blades and pendants. Which suggests our species brought this technology and cultured, and interacted with Neanderthals a few thousand years more than previously suggested. That means Neanderthals and our species were probably in contact much earlier in Eastern and Central Europe than farther west. And that probably explains why Neanderthals seem to have held on for so much longer in Western Europe than elsewhere.

One thought on “The Oldest European Homo sapiens

  1. Bacho Kiro IUP artefacts are very interesting and important, but the blade techno-type so far shown in the related paper seem to be somehow mixed with Levallois technology (Mode 3). Indeed, many very old sites (such as Qesem cave in the Levant and Kathu Pan, in South Africa) include elongated flakes knapped from “core blade” operative chain.
    So, up to me, the blades’ “copy right” to Homo sapiens still remains under discussion…..

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