2 Nov 2011

Jawbone proves man lived with neanderthals

A jawbone fragment found in Devon is further evidence that neanderthals coexisted with the ancestors of modern humans, as Science Correspondent Tom Clarke explains.

New analysis has revealed a fragment of broken jaw belonged to the oldest member of our species in Britain, and suggests our direct ancestors arrived at a time when neanderthals ruled the land.

The jawbone was discovered in Kents Cavern, Torquay in 1927. It was thought to date from around 35,000 years ago and the type of human it belonged to was not originally clear.

But new analysis by researchers from the University of Oxford and the Natural History Museum, published today in Nature, shows it is more like 42,500 years old and is definitely from our species, homo sapiens.

The new date means the jaw belonged to a person living in very interesting times: when two species of human lived side-by-side. Neanderthals had all but disappeared from Europe by 40,000 years ago and there has been a long-running debate about whether our species and our cousins co-existed.

Lovers not fighters

“Now we can say there was an overlap of several thousand years. Plenty of time for these populations to have been in contact with each other – for modern humans to be affecting the neanderthals,” said Chris Stringer, palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who helped analyse the jaw fragment.

It’s a crucial question because scientists don’t yet know why neanderthals died out and why our species went on to colonise the entire planet.

“One idea is that modern humans were a factor in neanderthals extinction,” said Stringer.

But other lines of evidence point to modern humans being lovers, not fighters. Neanderthals became more culturally sophisticated around 40,000 years ago using new pigments, jewellery and different tools – traits which they may have picked up from the new kids on the block, homo sapiens.

Mixed up

Also recent research shows there was some interbreeding between our species and neanderthals during the thousands of years before we made it out of the Middle East to Europe.

Could we have re-kindled that relationship on the shores of England?

“DNA research in future could investigate to what extent were these groups in contact. Maybe in physical contact? Maybe even in genetic contact?” said Stringer.

The jawbone is on display at the Torquay Museum.

Curator Barry Chandler described the research findings as “fantastic”. However he believed the jawbone still had potential to reveal further surprises.

“There’s always somebody developing new scientific techniques to look at early humans. So someone will develop a new technique, a new way of looking at this, maybe a new way of dating it and it will almost certainly be part of scientific research in the future,” he said