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The jawbone in a cave

3 November 2011

Kents Cavern in Torquay in SW England is famous for the discovery of numerous Ice Age mammals. Mixed in with these bones was the jawbone of a human. It is assumed to be that of a modern human – for anatomical reasons. It might well be otherwise. In the 1980s it was dated by C14 methodology to around 35,000 years ago – which was just about at the boundary C14 dating techniques was reliable. In fact, it was in that sort of plateau in which dates between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago are considered to be open to error. This dating horizon has plagued research into when modern humans superseded Neanderthals in Europe and SW Asia. A few weeks ago it was announced with a press release that evidence from eastern Europe indicated Neanderthals had died out before modern humans entered the region – and now we have the opposite result. One may wonder if some kind of politics are going on here but as the BBC and various mainstream media outlets have informed us over the last few days, the jawbone has now been dated to between 44,000 and 41,000 years ago – contemporary with Neanderthals. Online sources are many but see for example http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/september-2011/article/evidence-of-… or go to http://popular-archaeology.com and key down to relevant article.

Now, rather than put a dampener on this it should be recognised that the jawbone itself was not redated. It was inadequate for a sample. However, scientists were keen to test it with the new C14 dating technique, which is based on the Bayesian methodology of taking several samples in order to find an average. The average then becomes the date for said sample. This methodology has tended to dated early megaliths in Britain within a narrow window – I wonder why. Here, the scientists, faithful to the Bayesian method, could not use actual human material – or Neanderthal it would seem. What they did was date animal bones that were said to originate from below and above the jawbone fragment and in that way came to an average date – above. Now, as 40,000 years ago is said to be the oldest date in which C14 is reliable – how much reliability is in this new date for the jawbone? What is necessary is collaboration from other sites in which modern humans superseded Neanderthals. It can't just rely on a single cave in the UK – unless we wish to be insular. Or is this the object of the press release?

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