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Pioneering Homo sapiens produced earliest modern artifacts in Europe

Pioneering Homo sapiens produced earliest modern artifacts in Europe
New analysis suggests modern humans produced the 45,000-year-old stone tools and beads found in Bulgaria's Bacho Kiro Cave. Photo by Tsenka Tsanova

May 11 (UPI) -- The earliest modern artifacts in Europe, including blade-like tools and animal tooth pendants, were left by pioneering groups of modern humans, according to the findings of an international team of researchers.

In 2015, researchers uncovered thousands of artifacts, including stone and bone tools, animal bones, beads and pendants, from the Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria.

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Scientists also found human remains, but the bones were so fragmented it was impossible to determine whether they belonged to Neanderthals or modern humans.

"Most Pleistocene bones are so fragmented that by eye, one cannot tell which species of animal they represent," Frido Welker, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Copenhagen and research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said in a news release. "However, the proteins differ slightly in their amino acid sequence from species to species. By using protein mass spectrometry, we can therefore quickly identify those bone specimens that represent otherwise unrecognizable human bones."

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The spectral analysis -- described Monday in the journal Nature -- proved the bones belonged to early Homo sapiens, or modern humans. Dating of human and animal bones, made with record precision, prove Homo sapiens first occupied the cave before Neanderthals, some 45,000 years ago. Researchers detailed the dating efforts in a separate study also published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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"The Bacho Kiro Cave site provides evidence for the first dispersal of H. sapiens across the mid-latitudes of Eurasia," said Jean-Jacques Hublin, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "Pioneer groups brought new behaviors 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."

While a number of studies have suggested Neanderthals were more technologically and culturally sophisticated than previously thought, the latest research suggests modern humans were responsible for some of the earliest modern technologies, like pendants and blades. Because similar artifacts have been found at nearby Neanderthal sites, scientists suggest there was cross-cultural exchange between Neanderthals and the early human inhabitants of Bacho Kiro Cave.

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Among the thousands of artifacts, scientists found pendants made from cave bear teeth and tools made from the bones of deer and bison. According to scientists, the artifacts are evidence of the technological superiority of early human pioneers.

"The Initial Upper Paleolithic in Bacho Kiro Cave is the earliest known Upper Palaeolithic in Europe. It represents a new way of making stone tools and new sets of behavior including manufacturing personal ornaments that are a departure from what we know of Neanderthals up to this time," said Tsenka Tsanova, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

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The artifacts and human remains are also the earliest evidence of the migration patterns that would spell the end for Neanderthals.

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"The Initial Upper Paleolithic probably has its origin in southwest Asia and soon after can be found from Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria to sites in Mongolia as Homo sapiens rapidly dispersed across Eurasia and encountered, influenced, and eventually replaced existing archaic populations of Neanderthals and Denisovans," Tsanova said.

Scientists were also able to locate genetic material in the human bone fragments and reconstruct full mitochondrial genomes from six out of seven specimens. Genomic analysis showed strong similarities between the mitochondrial DNA of the early Homo sapiens and present-day humans living outside of Sub-Saharan Africa.

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