Modern humans probably arrived in the Levant earlier than previously thought

The new carbon dating of shells indicates that modern humans already lived in the Levant and Southwest Asia at least as early as 45,900 years ago, and that it is from this area that modern humans colonised Europe. This is a few thousand years earlier than previously thought.

Shells found in Lebanon

An international team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have reconstructed this new dating in collaboration with researchers from the universities of Leiden, Groningen, Mainz, York and Cambridge. They did so by dating shells found on the excavation site of Ksâr 'Akil in Lebanon. The researchers published the results on 1 June in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Phorcus turbinatus shells. 1) is a complete specimen; the top of 2) was sawn off by a human from the Palaeolithic era to access the meat inside.

Phorcus turbinatus shells. 1) is a complete specimen; the top of 2) was sawn off by a human from the Palaeolithic era to access the meat inside.

Carbon dating

The team dated the shells of the marine gastropod Phorcus turbinatus that were consumed by the inhabitants of Ksâr ‘Akil. The way in which the shells were sawn off at the top led the researchers to conclude that these marine snails were used for food. Since the inhabitants collected living snails, the dating of the shells matches the time when they were eaten. The shells (see illustration) were dated using the C14 method: their age was determined using carbon isotope 14. This revealed that modern humans were already around at least 45,900 years ago.


New chronology of the Palaeolithic

These shells are older than the oldest known fossils in Europe, which are between 45,000 and 43,000 years old. This indicates that the Levant served as a migration route for our ancestors from Africa to their final dispersal into Eurasia much earlier than previously thought. With the help of other oxygen isotopes and carbon results, the researchers are creating a new chronology for the early stages of the Palaeolithic era in Ksâr 'Akil.

Leiden involvement

The Leiden researchers involved in the project are Jean-Jacques Hublin and Johannes van der Plicht. Hublin is an Extraordinary Professor of Palaeoanthropology at Leiden University and the director of the Human Evolution Department of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Van der Plicht is an Extraordinary Professor of Isotope Archaeology at Leiden University and the head of the University of Groningen C14 Laboratory.

'New chronology for Ksâr ‘Akil (Lebanon) supports Levantine route of modern human dispersal into Europe', in: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

(3 June 2015)

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Last Modified: 04-06-2015