In 2006, archaeologists announced that they
had been able to identify fossils which belonged to some of
the earliest modern humans to settle in Europe.
The research team involved was able to date
six bones found in the Pestera Muierii cave in Romania to 30,000
years ago. The finds also raised questions at the time about
the possible place of Neanderthals in modern human ancestry.
Details of the discoveries appeared in the US
journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The
human bones were first identified in 1952 at the cave known as
Pestera Muierii (the 'Cave of the Old Woman'), but had now been
Only a handful of modern human remains which were
older than 28,000 years old were known from Europe by this date.
Erik Trinkaus from Washington University in St Louis and colleagues
obtained radiocarbon dates directly from the fossils and analysed
their anatomical form. The results showed that the fossils were
30,000 years old and had the diagnostic features of modern humans
However, Professor Trinkaus and his colleagues
argued, controversially, that the bones also displayed features
which were characteristic of our evolutionary cousins, the
Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).
Neanderthals appear in the European fossil record
about 400,000 years ago. At their peak, these squat, physically
powerful hunters dominated a wide range, spanning Britain and Iberia
in the west to Israel in the south and Uzbekistan in the east. Modern
humans are thought to have entered Europe about 40,000 years ago and,
within 10,000 years, Neanderthals had largely disappeared from the
By 24,000 years ago, the last survivors vanished
from their refuge in the Iberian Peninsula.
Ice age liaisons?
While many researchers of the time were still of a
mind that Neanderthals were simply driven to extinction - either by
climate change or competition with the moderns or, more probably, a
combination of both - a handful of scientists were following the
increasingly popular theory that they interbred with the incomers
and contributed to the modern human gene pool.