A team of scientists, comprising members from Berlin's Museum of Prehistory and Early History, Universität Greifswald
, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
in Leipzig and the Leibniz Laboratory for Radiometric Dating and Stable Isotope Research in Kiel, have managed to unlock the secrets surrounding the dating of the burial site of Combe Capelle that was discovered by the Swiss researcher Otto Hauser in 1909.
Since his sensational discovery, the site of Combe Capelle has long been considered one of the oldest finds of the remains of modern Homo sapiens anywhere in Europe. Due to the individual circumstances of the find, doubt was sometimes cast on its speculated age of more than 30,000 years and its connection with the transition to the Upper Palaeolithic (Châtelperronian). In spite of this, however, the remains (buried with a chain of mussel shells) were nevertheless thought to have originated in the Ice Age.
After an initial sample of the famous skull failed to yield results in radiocarbon dating, a second sample was taken from a molar in the lower jaw for testing in June 2009 in Kiel. In previous cases, compact tooth enamel had shown better preservation conditions of the collagen needed for radiocarbon dating. A sufficient amount of collagen was able to be extracted after preparation and intense cleaning of the tooth substance. Subsequent analysis using accelerator mass spectrometry at the laboratory in Kiel assigned a date of 7575 BCE to the remains of what had previously been assumed to be an early Homo sapiens specimen, meaning earlier assumptions had been out by several thousands of years.
The new dating for the site at Combe Capelle not only underscores the fact that finds of early anatomically modern humans, pre-dating 30,000 years ago, are extremely rare in Europe, but also confirms the trend that we have no evidence of burials from this era. At the same time, it has become clear that Châtelperronian culture in France was practised exclusively by the last Neanderthals. The new date places the crouched inhumation site from the rock shelter of Combe Capelle in the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic), when humans lived in warm climatic conditions and survived by hunting, fishing and gathering nuts and berries, including hazelnuts. Inhumations from the later Middle Stone Age are exceptionally rare in Europe, and as such, the site of Combe Capelle remains an outstanding testament of European prehistory.