Two archeology students volunteering at a dig site in France have uncovered a rare find — a 550,000-year-old tooth from an ancestor of modern humans.
That's so old that very few hominin fossils exist in Europe from that period of time, according to the Tautavel Museum of Prehistory, which announced the discovery. That also makes the tooth the oldest hominin remains ever found in France by about 100,000 years.
"Obviously, it's a shock — a beautiful encounter through time," anthropologist Amélie Vialet, who led the excavation, told the radio station France Bleu.
Students Camille Jacquey and Valentin Loescher found the lower front tooth of an adult last Thursday at the Caune de l'Arago cave near Tautavel in southwestern France. There were no other hominin bones with it.
Yves Coppen, a paleoanthropologist at the Collège de France in Paris, told the radio station France Info that human ancestors are estimated to have used the cave for about 700,000 years.
Actual human remains, including the famous 450,000 year-old Homo erectus skeleton known as the Tautavel Man, have largely been found in less ancient deposits than the ones where the tooth was found.
The tooth was found at a level in the cave corresponding to about 560,000 years ago, a cold, dry, windy period, the museum said. Other artifacts found in the cave from that time include the remains of the occupants' meals, including the bones of horses, reindeer, bison, rhinoceros and sheep and stone tools.
The first modern humans arrived in Europe around 50,000 years ago.