Discoveries that Re-wrote Early Prehistory

1 min read

Prof Sir Paul Mellars, University of Edinburgh, trustee of the ACE Foundation

The Venus of Hohle Fels.
The Venus of Hohle Fels.

• The world’s oldest stone tools now date back to about 2.6m years ago, at Gona in Ethiopia – with apparently human cut marks on bones possibly as old as 3.4m years at Bouri, also in Ethiopia.

• The earliest human settlement of Britain has now been dated to c.800,000 and 500,000, at Pakefield and Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast.

• DNA from Neanderthal sites in Europe has allowed the reconstruction of an almost complete Neanderthal ‘genome’. As a result, we know that Neanderthals and modern humans derived from a common ancestor in Africa about 800,000 years ago, followed by a dispersal of ‘proto-Neanderthals’ into Europe and Asia around 300,000 years ago. Even more spectacular is the DNA identification of the recently discovered ‘Denisovan’ species, dated to c.40,000 years – clearly distinct from both Neanderthal and modern human populations, and not as yet identified (by DNA) from any other site!

• Both new DNA and archaeological evidence suggest that Homo sapiens migrated from east Africa, via the Mouth of the Red Sea, to Asia c.60,000 years ago, rapidly replacing Neanderthal populations across Europe by about 40,000 years ago. Claims of an earlier ‘Out of Africa’ modern human dispersal from Africa to India – before the Mount Toba volcanic super-eruption c.74,000 years ago – have been withdrawn.

• Perforated sea shells from sites in north Africa are evidence of ‘modern’ symbolic behaviour that dates to at least 120,000 years ago.

• In Europe, the earliest Upper Palaeolithic art is now dated to 35,000-40,000 years ago, as at Chauvet cave in France, and at the Hohle Fels cave in Germany where remarkable new discoveries were made of bone and ivory flutes , and carved mammoth-ivory figurines – including the world’s oldest depiction of a woman. At Creswell Crags, UK, we now have the earliest artistic cave engravings of animals.

• Development of the ultrafiltration technique in radiocarbon dating, at Oxford University, shows an increase in the true age of some samples by 2,000 to 5,000 years, demonstrating a progressive dispersal of modern humans across the continent (via the Mediterranean coast and the Danube valley) c.48,000 to 40,000 years ago, allowing for interaction between the final Neanderthal and incoming modern human populations.

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