Oct 01, 2006
SCIENTISTS are to extract DNA from a fossilised jaw, thought to be of a Neanderthal man, in an attempt to unlock the origins of humans who roamed Britain 35,000 years ago.
The jaw, discovered at Kent’s Cavern, a complex of caves near Torquay, in 1927, was assumed to be that of a modern human. Initial radio-carbon dating suggested it was about 31,000 years old, putting it among the first modern humans to arrive in Britain.
However, new evidence suggests the jaw is at least 4,000 years older than that — and that it could be that of a Neanderthal. Archeologists say the fossil could yield vital information on how early humans spread across Britain and Europe in that period.
Professor Chris Stringer, who is research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, said the test could have historic results.
Although many Neanderthal tools have been found in Britain, the jaw could be the first fossil of its kind to be found on the mainland. Some remains were found on the Channel Islands in about 1910.
“We know that Neanderthals were in Britain around 60,000 years ago but there is a critical period between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago when modern humans were spreading across Europe and Neanderthals were disappearing,” said Stringer.
“We do not know exactly when Neanderthals vanished nor when modern humans arrived. There may even be a period when they overlapped. This fossil appears to fall right in the middle of that period so, whatever it is, it could give us some very important clues.”
The DNA analysis will be carried out at Oxford University where a small hole will be drilled into one of the three teeth in the jaw in the hope that some of the original DNA has survived. The tests have been approved by Torquay Museum where the jaw has been displayed since it was discovered.
Stringer is leading the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project which includes archeologists, palaeontologists and geologists from the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Durham.
Its aim is to draw up a chronological sequence for the arrival and spread of humans in Britain. It has made some spectacular finds, including evidence that dated the arrival of early humans in Britain to 700,000 years ago, 200,000 years earlier than had been thought. It also found that massive changes in climate drove human inhabitants out of Britain many times over.