Carbon14 Dates Question Role of Near East in Early Human Migrations

Radiocarbon dating of human remains from one of the deepest prehistoric sites in the Near East throws into question widely-held ideas about how the first modern people spread across the world during the Palaeolithic era.
C14 dates question role of Near East in early human migrations.
Beads from the site of Ksar Akil, Lebanon, found closely associated with the skeleton of an early modern girl dating to between 39,000 to 41,000 years ago. The beads (pictured) are made of shells of small marine snails as well as a Glycymeris shell in the centre, preserved with bright red pigmentation [Credit: London Natural History Museum]
The traditional view is that the first humans with anatomy like ours evolved in Africa, then from about 50,000 years ago started to spread into the Near East before continuing into Asia and Europe.

But the new study suggests they may have settled the Near East a lot later than previously thought, and that therefore the region may not be the single vital crossroads through which early humans passed on their way to colonising the whole Eurasian landmass. If so, the story of our spread out of Africa may need to be rewritten. Instead of colonising the Levant then moving into Europe, our distant ancestors may have first settled in the central Asian steppes before turning west again.

'Since the 1930s, many prehistorians have believed the Levant was a major strategic point for people moving from Africa into the Middle East and Europe,' says Dr Katerina Douka of the University of Oxford, who led the research. 'It sounds a straightforward and obvious idea, but these early humans didn't necessarily follow the maps of today.'

She adds that the region has received comparatively little attention from archaeologists, so theories tend to rest on a very small base of evidence - the Near East is the least-dated area of the Palaeolithic world. On top of this, the region's hot dry conditions make scientific archaeology difficult - for example, the climate tends to destroy the collagen on which radiocarbon dating of bones depends. C14 dates question role of Near East in early human migrations
Beads from the site of Ksar Akil, Lebanon, found closely associated with the skeleton of an early modern girl dating to between 39,000 to 41,000 years ago. The beads (pictured) are made of shells of small marine snails as well as a Glycymeris shell in the centre, preserved with bright red pigmentation [Credit: London Natural History Museum]
The traditional view is that the first humans with anatomy like ours evolved in Africa, then from about 50,000 years ago started to spread into the Near East before continuing into Asia and Europe.

But the new study suggests they may have settled the Near East a lot later than previously thought, and that therefore the region may not be the single vital crossroads through which early humans passed on their way to colonising the whole Eurasian landmass. If so, the story of our spread out of Africa may need to be rewritten. Instead of colonising the Levant then moving into Europe, our distant ancestors may have first settled in the central Asian steppes before turning west again.

'Since the 1930s, many prehistorians have believed the Levant was a major strategic point for people moving from Africa into the Middle East and Europe,' says Dr Katerina Douka of the University of Oxford, who led the research. 'It sounds a straightforward and obvious idea, but these early humans didn't necessarily follow the maps of today.'

She adds that the region has received comparatively little attention from archaeologists, so theories tend to rest on a very small base of evidence - the Near East is the least-dated area of the Palaeolithic world. On top of this, the region's hot dry conditions make scientific archaeology difficult - for example, the climate tends to destroy the collagen on which radiocarbon dating of bones depends.

Douka says more research is needed on other possible routes by which humans could have dispersed into Europe and Asia. She's currently working on several projects in central Asia and Siberia - areas she thinks could form part of one such route.

'The traditional view is around the start of the Upper Palaeolithic, there was a movement out of Africa, through the Levant and into Europe,' she explains. 'But if you look further East, there's evidence for much earlier colonisation - sites that we can date as older than 50,000 years, which is the limit of how far back we can go with radiocarbon dating. My own view is that modern humans had probably already populated central Asia and modern-day Russia before colonising Europe in one or more waves of expansion.'

She's working on a European Research Council-funded project (PalaeoChron) that uses another technique, known as optically-stimulated luminescence dating, which can go much further back into history - around half a million years.

The radiocarbon dating work took place at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit; NERC provided financial support. (Click Image for better view)

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