Subarctic climate for the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe

Pederzani Sarah, Britton Kate, Aldeias Vera, Bourgon Nicolas, Fewlass Helen, Lauer Tobias, McPherron Shannon P., Rezek Zeljko, Sirakov Nikolay, Smith Geoff M., Spasov Rosen, Tran N.-Han, Tsanova Tsenka, Hublin Jean-Jacques

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The expansion of Homo sapiens across Eurasia marked a major milestone in human evolution that would eventually lead to our species being found across every continent. Current models propose that these expansions occurred only during episodes of warm climate, based on age correlations between archaeological and climatic records. Here, we obtain direct evidence for the temperatures faced by some of these humans through the oxygen isotope analysis of faunal remains from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria, the earliest clear record of H. sapiens in Europe. The results indicate that humans ∼45,000 years ago experienced subarctic climates with far colder climatic conditions than previously suggested. This demonstrates that the early presence of H. sapiens in Europe was not contingent on warm climates. Our results necessitate the revision of key models of human expansion and highlight the need for a less deterministic role of climate in the study of our evolutionary history.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbereabi4642
Number of pages11
JournalScience Advances
Issue number39
Early online date22 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

The re-excavation of Bacho Kiro Cave was jointly conducted by the National Institute of Archaeology with Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia and the Department of Human Evolution at the MPI-EVA. We would like to thank the National Museum of Natural History (Sofia), the Archaeology Department at the New Bulgarian University (Sofia), the Regional Museum of History in Gabrovo, and the History Museum in Dryanovo for assistance on this project and the opportunity to study the Bacho Kiro Cave faunal material. We would like to thank M. Trost, S. Hesse, M. Kaniecki, and P. Dittmann (MPI-EVA) for technical assistance during stable isotope sample preparation. S. Steinbrenner is thanked for technical assistance with TC/EA-IRMS maintenance. Thanks are also due to H. Temming and U. Schwarz (MPI-EVA) for the production of microCT scans and replicas of the sample materials. We would also like to acknowledge the assistance of to D. Veres with taking OSL samples. Last but not least we would like to thank the handling editor, S. Ortman, as well as three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments that greatly improved this manuscript.

Funding: The field work was financed by the Max Planck Society. The stable isotope work was funded by the Max Planck Society as part of S.P.’s doctoral project. S.P. was supported by the Max Planck Society and the University of Aberdeen. K.B. was supported by a Philip Leverhulme Prize from The Leverhulme Trust (PLP-2019-284). N.B.’s work was supported as part of a grant by the German Research Foundation (“PALÄODIET” Project 378496604). V.A. was supported by a grant from the Foundation for Science and Technology, Portugal (IF/01157/2015/CP1308/CT0002). Author contributions: The study was devised by S.P., K.B., S.P.M., J.-J.H., and T.T. Archaeological excavation was undertaken by N.S. and T.T. in collaboration with Z.R. and S.P.M. who all contributed contextual information. V.A. collected sedimentological data at the site and untertook micromorphological investigations that provided information on site formation for this study. Zooarchaeological and paleontological analyses were performed by G.M.S. and R.S. OSL dating was carried out by T.L. Radiocarbon dating and recalibration of radiocarbon dates were conducted by H.F. MC-ICPMS analysis was conducted by N.B. and S.P. Sampling, sample processing for oxygen and strontium stable isotope analysis, and TC/EA-IRMS analysis were carried out by S.P. Code and data analyses were written and conducted by S.P. N.-H.T. consulted on statistical analysis and coding. S.P. wrote the paper with input from all authors. Competing interests: The authors declare that they have no competing interests. Data and materials availability: All data needed to evaluate the conclusions in the paper are present in the paper and/or the Supplementary Materials.

Data Availability Statement

Software, code, and data
This article, including code for all data analyses, was written in R version 3.6.2 (39), and the manuscript and Supplementary Materials were produced using RMarkdown (40). Package information and version details can be found in supplementary text S10. All δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr values for individual samples can be found in tables S2 and S3. Data and code to reproduce the manuscript files, figures, and analyses are available at


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