Oldest cranial, dental, postcranial fossils of early humans confirmed

Human fossil evidence excavated more than 100 years ago from the Mladec Caves in Moravia, Czech Republic, has been proven for the first time to be the oldest cranial, dental and postcranial assemblage of early modern humans in Europe.

A team of researchers — from the Natural History Museum in Vienna, the University of Vienna and Washington University — recently conducted the first successful direct dating of the material.

Erik Trinkaus
Erik Trinkaus

Several previous attempts to radiocarbon date the Mladec specimens directly have failed. But in this more recent attempt, using teeth as dating material yielded reliable results: The samples date to around 31,000 years ago.

The findings were published in a recent issue of Nature.

“The dating results document that these samples are as old as we thought they should be,” said Maria Teschler-Nicola, Ph.D., of the Natural History Museum in Vienna and Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor in Arts & Sciences, the two anthropologists involved in the study.

This is the oldest assemblage of modern humans in Europe that retains many portions of the skeleton plus archaeological objects from the Aurignacian period.

Only two modern human specimens — from a site in Romania, dated to about 35,000 years ago — are older. At Mladec, there are at least five or six individuals represented.

The dating shows that the Mladec assemblage is central to discussions of modern human emergence in Europe and the fate of the Neandertals.

The Mladec remains are universally accepted as those of early modern humans. However, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether they also exhibit distinctive archaic features, indicative of some degree of Neandertal ancestry, or are morphologically aligned solely with recent humans and therefore document only a dispersal of modern humans into Europe.

The Mladec assemblage’s radiocarbon dating — which was performed at the VERA (Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator) Laboratory at the University of Vienna — confirms that they derived from the time period of the middle to late Aurignacian of Central Europe.

Given the presence of multiple individuals, males and females, adult and immature with cranial, dental and postcranial elements, the Mladec grouping is the oldest directly dated substantial assemblage of modern human remains in Europe.