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The shell beads that reveal early modern humans arrived in the Middle East some 42,000 years ago

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

Scientists have found new evidence that suggests the earliest fully modern humans arrived in the Near East (now known as the Middle East) around 42,000-years-ago.

An international team of researchers radiocarbon dated marine shells found at a key archaeological site in Lebanon, which allowed them to calculate the oldest fossil from the same sequence of archaeological layers is between 42,400 and 41,700-years-old.

The shell beads found at Ksar Akil are significant as they are roughly the same age as the earliest fossils of modern humans found in Europe, which enables scientists to explore 'intriguing new possibilities' about the routes taken by the earliest modern humans out of Africa.

The team, led by the University of Oxford, radiocarbon dated 20 marine shells from the top 15 metres of archaeological layers at Ksar Akil, north of Beirut.

The shells were perforated, which indicates they were used as beads for body or clothes decoration by modern humans.

Neanderthals, who were living in the same region before them, were not making such beads, according to the scientists.

The study, published in journal PLOS ONE, confirms that the shell beads are only linked to the parts of the sequence assigned to modern humans and shows that through direct radiocarbon dating they are between 41,000-35,000 years old.

Scientists radiocarbon dated 20 marine shells from the top 15 metres of archaeological layers at Ksar Akil, north of Beirut in Lebanon

Scientists and historians consider the Middle East to be a key region in prehistory and academics have long speculated about the routes taken by early humans out of Africa because it lies at the crossroads of three continents Africa, Asia and Europe.

It was widely believed that at some point around 45,000 years ago, early modern humans arrived in Europe, taking routes out of Africa through the Near East and from there travelled along the Mediterranean rim or the River Danube.

However, this dating evidence suggests populations of early modern humans arrived in Europe and the Near East at roughly the same time, sparking a new debate about where the first populations of early humans travelled from in their expansion towards Europe and which alternative routes they may have taken.

Several human remains were found in the Lebanese rock shelter in Ksar Akil when it was first excavated 75 years ago.

But sadly, the most complete skeleton of a young girl thought to be between seven and nine-years-old, who was buried at the back of the shelter, has disappeared.

Fragments of a second individual found next to the girl have also been lost.

However, the team was able to calculate the age of the lost fossil at 40,800 to 39,200 years old, taking into account its location in the sequence of archaeological layers in relation to the marine shell beads.

Another fossil of a recently rediscovered fragment of an upper jaw of a woman, now located in a museum in Beirut, had insufficient collagen to be dated by radiocarbon methods.

But a method using statistical modelling was used to date by association the jaw fragment at 42,400 to 41,700 years old.

The excavations at Ksar Akil in 1938 showing workers digging at 17 metres below the surface. A chief archaeologist examines their finds from above (shown here in the middle right of the picture wearing a hat)

Ksar Akil is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Eurasia and consists of a 23 metre deep sequence of archaeological layers that have been undisturbed for thousands of years until a team of American Jesuit priests excavated a rock shelter in 1937 and revisited it 10 years later.

The cave layers were found to contain the human fossils and hundreds of shell beads, as well as thousands of stone tools and broken bones of hunted and consumed animals.

Study lead author Dr Katerina Douka, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: 'This is a region where scholars have been expecting to find early evidence of anatomically and behaviourally modern humans, like us, leaving Africa and directly replacing Eurasian Neanderthal populations that lived there for more than 150,000 years.'

It was believed early modern humans arrived in Europe 45,000 years ago, taking routes out of Africa through the Near East, and then along the Mediterranean rim or the River Danube (pictured in modern times). But the new evidence suggests early modern humans arrived in Europe and the Near East at roughly the same time

The human fossils at Ksar Akil appear to be of a similar age to fossils in other European contexts. It is possible that instead of the Near East being the single point of origin for modern humans heading for Europe, they may also have used other routes too.

A maritime route across the Mediterranean has been proposed although evidence is scarce. A wealth of archaeological data now pinpoints the plains of Central Asia as a particularly important but relatively unknown region which requires further investigation.

The earliest European modern fossil, from Romania, is thought to be between 42,000 and 38,000 years old and specialists have estimated the age of Kent's Cavern Maxilla from southern England, between 44,000 to 41,000 years and that of two milk teeth in southern Italy, at 45,000 to 43,000 years old.

The new dating evidence from Ksar Akil is largely comparable to these ages, if not slightly younger.

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