Archaeologists working in a Bulgarian cave have unearthed the earliest direct evidence of modern humans ever found in Europe.
The landmark finding reveals that human migration reached Europe around 45,000 years ago, proving the first ever Europeans overlapped with Neanderthals.
Analysis of fossilised human remains reveals the cave-dwellers regularly hunted bison and dear while also turning animal teeth into fashion accessories.
Several cave bear teeth which had been turned into personal ornaments were discovered at the site.
Pictured, stone artefacts from the archaeological site at Bacho Kiro Cave. These were fashioned into tools and blades by modern humans living in the cave n what is now modern-day Bulgaria
Pictured, excavations work at Bacho Kiro Cave (Bulgaria). Homo sapiens bones were recovered from this site along with a rich stone tool assemblage, animal bones, bone tools, and pendants
Oldest known evidence of modern humans in Europe
The recent findings place the human remains seen at the Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria as the oldest known modern human remains in Europe.
Aside from Bacho Kiro, the directly dated human remains from the site of Peştera cu Oase in Romania is the next oldest direct evidence.
Human remains here are thought to be 41,000 years old.
Other studies have claimed to be the earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe. but these remain contested.
For example, human remains at Kent’s Cavern in the UK and Grotta del Cavallo in Italy allegedly predate the Bacho Kiro findings.
These last two sites, however, are plagued with archaeological issues.
The human remains were not directly dated, instead animal or marine fossils found at the site were dated.
This contentious issue means the Back Kiro site, at least for now, is regarded by scientists as the oldest direct evidence of modern humans in Europe.
Researchers were working at a cave known as Bacho Kiro, which was first discovered and excavated in the 1970s and is located three miles (5 km) from the town of Dryanovo.
Fresh analysis by two teams of researchers found a smattering of bones and teeth in the cave, but due to millennia underground it was impossible to tell which species most of the remains belonged to.
One tooth was clearly human, but the rest underwent detailed lab analysis to scan the material’s proteins and reveal which animal it came from.
These results, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, reveal some of the bones belonged to bison, dear and other animals while others were definitely human.
A separate study published in Nature found evidence of seven ancient hominins among the fossilised remains. DNA was successfully extracted from six of them.
Dr Mateja Hajdinjak, a postdoctoral Fellow at the Francis Crick Institute in London and research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology said this was only possible due to the ‘exceptionally good’ preservation of the DNA.
The two studies, which involved significant cooperation and overlap, proved humans did exist in Europe around 45,000 years ago.
Animal bones found at the site had prominent butchery marks on them likely left behind as humans used tools to cut up the carcasses for meat and materials.
High-quality flint also found at the site, which originated more than 100 miles away, may have been used as a butchering knife or as a weapon for hunting.
The study revealed that many of the animal bones had been worked into tools, including awls and lissoirs, which were used to punch holes in hides and soften animal skins, respectively.
The trove of cave bear teeth used as pendants came as a shock to the scientists as similar pendants have previously been found that were made by Neanderthals.
Co-author Professor Shara Bailey, an anthropologist at New York University, says there were clear similarities between the jewellery made at the Bulgarian site by Homo sapiens and more recent versions carved by Neanderthals.
She says: ‘There are some similarities in manufacturing techniques used by Homo sapiens at Bacho Kiro and Neanderthals elsewhere, which makes clear there was cultural transmission going on between the two groups.’
Professor Hublin says this level of cultural interaction and overlap while occupying the same territory means it is indubitable that humans and Neanderthals co-existed for a long period of time.
Bone tools and personal ornaments from Bacho Kiro. Pictured A-J) Pendants made from perforated and grooved teeth (a, ungulate; b–j, cave bear). K, L and O) Awls – used to punch holes in materials M) Anthropogenically modified shard of bone N and P) Lissoirs – curved pieces of bone used to work animal hides and make them softer and Q) an ivory bead
Pictured, a selection of bone fragments from the Bacho Kiro Cave with surface modifications made by humans. A) horse bone B) bear bone C) Bison rib D and E) Bison long bones potentially from a limb
While cave bear teeth was the ‘bling’ of choice for the prehistoric people, other animal remains were also turned into jewellery.
The researchers of the Nature study, headed up by Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin, write: ‘Several of the artefacts have red staining that is consistent with the use of ochre.
‘We identified 1 [one] perforated ivory bead and 12 perforated or grooved pendants, 11 of which were made from cave bear teeth and 1 [one] from an ungulate tooth.’
Professor Hublin believes it is unlikely this first wave of humans into Europe around 45,000 years ago caused the demise of our ancient cousins.
‘The Bacho Kiro Cave site provides evidence for the first dispersal of H. sapiens across the mid-latitudes of Eurasia,’ he explains.
‘Pioneer groups brought new behaviours into Europe and interacted with local Neanderthals.
‘This early wave largely predates that which led to their final extinction in western Europe 8,000 years later.’
Dr William Banks of the University of Bordeaux was not involved in the research but the prehistoric archaeologist wrote an opinion article accompanying the studies.
He praised the research but says it is difficult to expand on its findings to narrow down when and how Neanderthals were wiped out.
‘The results summarised and discussed are important because we as archaeologists ultimately wish to understand the population and cultural dynamics implicated in the observed disappearance of Neanderthal populations in Europe around 40,000 – 39,000 years ago,’ he writes.
‘It is important to keep in mind, nonetheless, that some of the characteristics of the data we use to investigate these issues render the task challenging.’
He says further research will need to be conducted to understand how, and indeed if, modern humans forced Neanderthals to extinction.
‘These new results from Bacho Kiro provide us with an important piece of the puzzle, but many still remain to be put in place,’ he says.
A map showing the relative dates at which humans arrived in the different Continents, including Europe 45,000 years ago. All humanity began in Africa, and moved beyond it after dispersing throughout the continent over thousands of years
Researchers were working at a cave known as Bacho Kiro which was first discovered and excavated in the 1970s and is located three miles (5 km) from the town of Dryanovo