Earliest Modern Artifacts in Europe – Blade-Like Tools and Teeth Pendants – Were Created by Homo Sapiens

Bacho Kiro Cave Stone Artifacts

Stone artifacts from the Initial Upper Paleolithic at Bacho Kiro Cave: 1-3, 5-7 Pointed blades and fragments from Layer I; 4 Sandstone bead with morphology similar to bone beads; 8 The longest complete blade. Credit: Tsenka Tsanova, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

Innovative tools and pendants previously thought to be possibly the work of Neanderthals.

Blade-like tools and animal tooth pendants previously discovered in Europe, and once thought to possibly be the work of Neanderthals, are in fact the creation of Homo sapiens, or modern humans, who emigrated from Africa, finds a new analysis by an international team of researchers.

Its conclusions, reported in the journal Nature, add new clarity to the arrival of Homo sapiens into Europe and to their interactions with the continent’s indigenous and declining Neanderthal population.

The analysis centers on an earlier discovery of bones and other artifacts found in the Bacho Kiro cave in what is modern-day Bulgaria.

Bacho Kiro Cave Entrance

Entrance to the Bacho Kiro Cave (Bulgaria). The excavations are just inside the entrance and to the left. The cave extends over 3 km and is a popular tourist destination. Credit: Nikolay Zaheriev, MPI-EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

“Our findings link the expansion of what were then advanced technologies, such as blade tools and pendants made from teeth and bone, with the spread of Homo sapiens more than 45,000 years ago,” explains Shara Bailey, a professor in NYU’s Department of Anthropology and one of the paper’s co-authors. “This confirms that Homo sapiens were mostly responsible for these ‘modern’ creations and that similarities between these and other sites in which Neanderthals made similar things are due to interaction between the populations.”

The findings offer a new understanding of both the nature of these species and their interactions.

Bacho Kiro Cave Excavation

Excavations at Bacho Kiro Cave (Bulgaria). The excavator in the foreground is recording artifacts (each marked with a colored pin) from the Initial Upper Paleolithic Layer I in the Niche sector. The bags with barcodes on them are for individual artifacts once their position has been recorded with a total station. The main sector is shown in the background. Credit: Željko Režek, MPI-EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

“If Neanderthals had created these ‘modern’ tools and jewelry, it would have indicated they had more advanced cognitive abilities than previously recognized,” explains Bailey. “Nonetheless, there are some similarities in manufacturing techniques used by Homo sapiens at Bacho Kiro and Neanderthals elsewhere, which makes clear that there was cultural transmission going on between the two groups.”

The analysis was led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Bacho Kiro Cave Bulgaria Excavations

The Niche 1 sector (left) and the Main sector (right) during our excavations of Bacho Kiro Cave (Bulgaria). The cement and mud area in the foreground was previously excavated in the 1970s. Our excavations picked up where these excavations left off. Credit: Tsenka Tsanova, MPI-EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

The team, which included scientists from Europe, the United States, and the United Kingdom, focused on the transition from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic period, between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. During this time, the European continent experienced the replacement and partial absorption of local Neanderthals by Homo sapiens populations from Africa. However, this process, anthropologists say, likely varied across regions, and the details of this transition remain largely unknown.

Tsenka Tsanova

One of the excavation directors, Tsenka Tsanova of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany), taking sediment samples for DNA analysis. Credit: Nikolay Zahariev, MPI-EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

To better comprehend a piece of this transition, the team focused on one of several places–Bacho Kiro–where discoveries of the earliest modern technologies, such as pendants and blades, have been made.

To ascertain which species occupied the area of these discoveries, the scientists deployed several methodologies. Bailey, an expert in tooth analysis, and her colleagues examined teeth and bones that had been found in Bacho Kiro.

Personal Ornaments and Bone Tools

Personal ornaments and bone tools from Bacho Kiro Cave (left) and from Grotte du Renne (France, right). The Bacho Kiro Cave artifacts are attributed to Homo sapiens and dated to approximately 45,000 years ago. The Grotte du Renne artifacts are attributed to Neandertals and are not quite as old. Credit: Rosen Spasov and Geoff Smith, MPI-EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

Using state-of-the-art technology called ZooMS (collagen peptide mass fingerprinting), they identified human bone fragments and concluded that they were at least 45,000 years old–a period coinciding with the arrival of multiple waves of Homo sapiens into Europe. Subsequent shape analyses of the tooth and DNA examination of the fragments determined that they belonged to Homo sapiens and not Neanderthals, whose presence was not evident among the discovered fossils.

“ZooMS allows us to identify previously unidentifiable bone fragments as some form of human,” explains Bailey. “From there, we can apply more sophisticated techniques to identify the species and more accurately date human bones.”

Read DNA of Bones Found in Cave Reveals Major Cultural Transition in Europe Took Place Earlier Than Thought for more on this research.


“Initial Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria” by Jean-Jacques Hublin, Nikolay Sirakov, Vera Aldeias, Shara Bailey, Edouard Bard, Vincent Delvigne, Elena Endarova, Yoann Fagault, Helen Fewlass, Mateja Hajdinjak, Bernd Kromer, Ivaylo Krumov, João Marreiros, Naomi L. Martisius, Lindsey Paskulin, Virginie Sinet-Mathiot, Matthias Meyer, Svante Pääbo, Vasil Popov, Zeljko Rezek, Svoboda Sirakova, Matthew M. Skinner, Geoff M. Smith, Rosen Spasov, Sahra Talamo, Thibaut Tuna, Lukas Wacker, Frido Welker, Arndt Wilcke, Nikolay Zahariev, Shannon P. McPherron and Tsenka Tsanova, 11 May 2020, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2259-z

“A 14C chronology for the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition at Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria” by Helen Fewlass, Sahra Talamo, Lukas Wacker, Bernd Kromer, Thibaut Tuna, Yoann Fagault, Edouard Bard, Shannon P. McPherron, Vera Aldeias, Raquel Maria, Naomi L. Martisius, Lindsay Paskulin, Zeljko Rezek, Virginie Sinet-Mathiot, Svoboda Sirakova, Geoffrey M. Smith, Rosen Spasov, Frido Welker, Nikolay Sirakov, Tsenka Tsanova and Jean-Jacques Hublin, 11 May 2020, Nature Ecology and Evolution.
DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1136-3

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