The earliest modern humans in Europe were not completely "modern" and continued to evolve after they settled on the continent nearly 40,000 years ago, according to new research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
An international team of researchers, including Hlene Rougier, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow, and Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., professor of anthropology, at Washington University in St. Louis, has been studying a 35,000-year-old cranium discovered in the Pestera cu Oase, in western Romania. The fossil specimen is the earliest largely complete example of an early modern human skull known from Europe.
The modern humans emerged within eastern Africa some 150,000 years ago, spread temporarily into extreme southwest Asia and into southern Africa, and then through northern Africa into Europe around 40,000 years ago. This skull is from the first 5,000 years of the apparent occupation of Europe by modern humans.
The cranium has no expressly Neandertal traits, those of its immediate predecessors in Europe. Yet, its combination of modern and archaic features can be used to reinforce arguments for some degree of mixture of Neandertals and modern humans, inferences that have been made from other early modern European fossils. In addition to its large face and retreating forehead, it has the largest cheek teeth so far known for an otherwise anatomically modern human.
But Rougier and Trinkaus have emphasized that the Oase 2 cranium is particularly important in showing that the earliest modern humans in Europe were not completely "modern." "I think that what this find really shows is the ongoing nature of human evolution," said Trinkaus. "Technically, this skull is a modern human, but humans as we know them today have evolved considerably since then."