for National Geographic News
Scientists have confirmed that bones found in the Czech Republic represent the earliest human settlement in Europe.
The collection of bones, which include samples from two males and two females, was excavated from the site of Mladec more than a century ago. Scientists have until now failed to date the fossils accurately.
The new research, using radiocarbon dating, has shown the bones to be about 31,000 radiocarbon years old.
(Radiocarbon years and calendar years don't always match. Radiocarbon dating is based on the decay rate of Carbon 14, a radioactive form of carbon present in the atmosphere that is absorbed by all living things.
Atmospheric abundance of Carbon 14 has varied over time. This makes it difficult to assign calendar dates to the fossil remains of organisms from certain time periods, as in the case of the Mladec bones.)
Modern humans began moving into Europe about 40,000 years ago. At the time, the Neandertals (also called Neanderthals) were still present in Europe. The two groups lived alongside each other until the Neandertals disappeared around 28,000 years ago.
Scientists say the Mladec remains are pivotal to the understanding of how and when Europe's first anatomically modern humans, commonly known as Cro-Magnon, arrived on the continent. The remains may also suggest clues to the relationship between humans and Neandertals, an issue that has been greatly debated.
"Some of the specimens show Neandertal-like features, but others do not," said Eva Wild at the Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator Laboratory at the University of Vienna, Austria. "The discussion will continue, in our opinion, in the direction of probable interbreeding."
Wild is one of the co-authors of the study, which is reported in today's issue of the academic journal Nature.
The Mladec bones are not the oldest human remains found in Europejust the oldest bones that indicate a human settlement, or community. Two human cranial fragments, found at the site of Pestera cu Oase in Romania, are believed to be older than the Mladec remains and date back 35,000 radiocarbon years.
The Mladec remains are a complete assemblage of early modern human fossils. The site contains remains of at least half a dozen individuals, including children. The range allows for the study of population variability.
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