Ancient bones in Bulgaria reveal ‘earliest evidence’ of Homo sapiens in Europe

Archaeologists conduct excavation work at the Bacho Kiro cave on Monday. (AP pic)

SOFIA: Scientists say a tooth and bone fragments discovered in a Bulgarian cave have revealed the earliest proven presence of Homo sapiens – or modern humans – on the European continent.

The finds from a cave in Bacho Kiro, northern Bulgaria, were analysed by an international team of scientists and date back to the “period when Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe from the Middle East and lived alongside Neanderthals, which lasted between 5,000 and 10,000 years”, Nikolay Sirakov, professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ Archaeological Institute told AFP on Tuesday.

“Previously scientists estimated that these events took place between 38,000 and 42,000 years ago,” said Sirakov, one of the leaders of the team which carried out the excavations.

“We’ve now proved that they took place earlier,” he added.

The research into the findings was published this week in the journals Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution and suggests that Homo sapiens was present in the region around 45,000 years ago.

The remains found in Bacho Kiro “are the oldest known European example attesting to the presence of Homo sapiens in the Upper Paleolithic period”, according to a statement from the College de France, two of whose professors formed part of the team of researchers who worked on establishing the age of the fragments.

“Upon arriving in Europe around 45,000 years ago, modern humans gradually began replacing the place occupied by Neanderthals,” the statement said.

The period in which the two species lived side by side is still the subject of extensive research and debate and the latest find will contribute new data to the field.

A preliminary process of carbon-14 dating gave an age range for the remains of between 46,940 and 43,650 years.

A second method, based on examining mitochondrial DNA present in the bone fragments, gave a range of between 44,830 and 42,616 years old, according to the College de France.

“These results show that modern humans had spread in the mid-latitudes of Eurasia earlier than 45,000 years ago,” the college said.

“While overlapping with the area populated by Neanderthals, they (Homo sapiens) exerted influence on their behaviour before replacing them,” it added.

The Bacho Kiro site has been known since the 1930s and has been open to tourists for decades.

The site was the subject of fresh excavations in 2015 which led to the new findings.