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Ancient Digs and Modern Myths: The Age and Context of the Kent's Cavern 4 Maxilla and the Earliest Homo sapiens Specimens in Europe

  • Mark White (a1) and Paul Pettitt (a2)

Abstract

Recent anatomical analyses of a human maxilla found in 1927 in the Vestibule at Kent's Cavern, Devon, UK, have been interpreted as confirming its taxonomic status as Homo sapiens, while Bayesian modelling of dated fauna apparently ‘associated’ with it has been interpreted as suggesting a calendar age for the maxilla of around 44,200–41,500 years BP, rendering it the earliest fossil evidence for modern human presence in Northern Europe. In this paper, we examine fully the circumstances of the maxilla's discovery, data not previously considered. Based mostly on archival and limited published materials, as well as knowledge of the cave's stratigraphy, we provide a detailed examination of the context of the maxilla and associated finds. We urge caution over using a small selected sample of fauna from an old and poorly executed excavation in Kent's Cavern to provide a radiocarbon stratigraphy and age for a human fossil that cannot be dated directly, and we suggest that the recent dating should be rejected. We place our evaluation in the wider context of the dating of European early anatomically modern humans.

Les analyses anatomiques récentes d'une maxillaire humaine découverte en 1972 dans le Vestibule de Kent's Cavern (Devon, Royaume-Uni) ont été interprétées comme confirmation de son statut taxonomique de Homo Sapiens. En même temps la modélisation bayésienne d'échantillons de faune datés apparemment ‘associés’ à la mâchoire a été interprétée comme suggérant que la maxillaire datait d'environ 44,200 à 41,500 ans BP; faisant d'elle la plus ancienne preuve fossile de la présence humaine moderne en Europe du Nord (Higham et al., 2011). Cet article examine de façon détaillée les circonstances de la découverte de la maxillaire, ces données n’étant jamais été considérées auparavant. Nous fournissons une étude complète du contexte de la maxillaire et des objets associés, en nous basant essentiellement sur du matériel d'archives et de rares publications, et sur ce qui est connu de la stratigraphie de la grotte. Nous préconisons la prudence quant à l'utilisation d'un petit échantillon sélectionné de faune provenant des fouilles anciennes et mal exécutées de la Kent's Cavern pour établir une stratigraphie et un âge radiocarbone pour un fossile humain qui ne saura être daté directement, et nous suggérons de rejeter les datations récentes. Nous plaçons notre évaluation dans le contexte plus vaste des datations des premiers Humains anatomiquement modernes en Europe. Translation by Isabelle Gerges

Zusammenfassung

Neue anatomische Analysen eines menschlichen Oberkiefers, der 1927 in der Vorhalle der Kent's Cavern (Devon, UK) gefunden worden ist, sind als Bestätigung von seinem taxonomischen Status als Homo sapiens gewertet worden, während Bayess'sche Modelle der datierten Faunenreste, die anscheinend mit ihm “verbunden” waren, auf ein Alter der Maxilla von etwa 44,200–41,500 Jahre BP wiesen und sie daher als erster fossiler Nachweis für die Anwesenheit des anatomisch modernen Menschen im nördlichen Europa bezeichnet worden ist (Higham et al., 2011). In diesem Beitrag untersuchen wir umfassend die Umstände der Entdeckung des Oberkiefers anhand von bislang nicht berücksichtigten Daten. Auf der Basis von weitgehend archivalischem und teilpubliziertem Material wie auch anhand der Stratigraphie der Höhle wird eine detaillierte Überprüfung des Kontextes der Maxilla und der mit ihr vergesellschafteten Funde unternommen. Die Verf. mahnen zur Vorsicht, eine kleine Probe von Faunenresten einer unzureichend durchgeführten Altgrabung in der Kent's Cavern zu nutzen, um eine Radiokarbonstratigraphie und ein Alter eines menschlichen Fossils, das nicht auf direktem Weg ermittelt werden kann, zu erzielen. Es wird daher vorgeschlagen, dass die neuesten Datierungen abgelehnt werden sollten. Die Einschätzungen werden in den weiteren Kontext der Datierungen des frühen anatomisch modernen Menschen in Europa gestellt. Translation by Heiner Schwarzberg

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