A piece of human jaw, found in 2009 in Hoek van Holland, turns out to be about 9,500 years old. The jaw thus dates from the Middle Stone Age. Human remains from that period are quite rare in our country – only once before was a jaw from this era found in the Netherlands.
It was a bit disappointing, paleontologist Dick Mol of the Natural History Museum is willing to admit. “We thought we had a good chance of getting hold of a mammoth-era human jaw.” The jaw contained molars of which the enamel was dark colored, often indicating an age of more than ten thousand years.
“Such discoloration takes a lot of time.” However, dating with the carbon method recently showed that it was a slightly younger specimen; the owner of this jaw walked around in the Netherlands somewhere between 7540 and 7485 years before the start of the era. Also rare, and very informative – but just a little less spectacular.
Red deer and wild boars
“From 60,000 to 25,000 years ago, the North Sea was a mammoth steppe,” says Mol. “The sea was dry at the time, you could just walk from the Netherlands to England.” In addition to being dry, it was also cold, and in addition to humanoids, cave lions, saber-toothed cats, woolly rhinoceroses and mammoths roamed the steppe. When the inland ice from Scandinavia reached its maximum extension, roughly 20,000 years ago, human habitation in northwestern Europe was hardly possible.
Until 11,700 years ago it gradually started to warm up, and the environment changed. The vegetation grew, and the mammoths and large predators gave way to red deer, wild boar, elk, badger, otters and roe deer. The young prehistoric man whose lower jaw was found a few years ago lived in this environment. He or she was between 15 and 25 years old.
Fossil hunter Sander Schouten found the jaw fragment on April 17, 2009 on the beach at Hoek van Holland, dating was done at the Isotope Research Department of the University of Groningen. Examination of the characteristics of the jaw and molars by paleoanthropologist Paul Storm, guest employee at Naturalis, showed that these of a Homo sapiens must have been between 15 and 25 years old. It is impossible to say whether it was a man or a woman. The researchers published their findings this summer in Cranium, the journal of the Pleistocene Mammals Working Group
Hook of Holland
The beach at Hoek van Holland is regularly reinforced by spraying new sand. Much of this sand is extracted on the north side of the Eurogeul – a fairway that runs from the North Sea to the Nieuwe Waterweg, through which large ships can reach the ports of Rotterdam. “The sediments in this area were deposited by the precursors of the Rhine and Meuse,” says Mol. So it is quite possible that these young Homo sapiens lived along the river – a logical and much used place of residence, as evidenced by bone and stone tools from the period. At the time, the Eurogeul area was a forest and water-rich environment, and must therefore have been an attractive hunter-fisher and gatherer location.
The fossil human jaw confirms the picture that in the Early Holocene, which lasted from 11,700 to about 9,000 years ago, humans lived where the North Sea is now. Remains of hominins from the Middle Stone Age had been found before, but the find at Hoek van Holland is only the second jaw.
The other jaw was fished from the North Sea by a cutter in 1993, and was between 8320 and 8420 years old. The researchers now hope for more finds, in order to shed more light on the development of humans on this piece of earth at the time.
The bottom of the North Sea is one of the richest sites in the world, says Mol. Because the North Sea was dry in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (i.e. from the Mammoth Age to the Middle Stone Age), the bottom of the North Sea is now strewn with fossil remains from that time.
Over the years, many fossils have been taken up by fishermen as bycatch in their cornets (trawl nets). Bones over a meter came up without a problem, but teeth, molars and smaller bones usually slipped through the meshes of the net. “That's why at a certain point we focused on gritting fossil remains,” says Mol, who has already completed 44 expeditions.
Today, the North Sea beaches and projects such as Maasvlakte 2 are the places where beautiful finds are made, thanks to the sand nourishments. Not only the fossils on the seabed, but also the remains that are buried deeper are lifted during the sand extraction and dumped on the beach. Mol:“For collectors and paleontologists, they are true treasure troves.”