TOULOUSE • A 16-year-old French volunteer archaeologist has found an adult tooth dating back about 560,000 years in south-western France in what researchers hailed as a "major discovery" .
"A large adult tooth - we can't say if it was from a male or female - was found during excavations of soil we know to be between 550,000 and 580,000 years old because we used different dating methods," said paleoanthropologist Amelie Viallet yesterday.
"This is a major discovery because we have very few human fossils from this period in Europe."
The tooth was found in the Arago cave near the village of Tautavel, one of the world's most important prehistoric sites which has been excavated for about 50 years. It is also the site of the discovery of fossils belonging to Tautavel Man, a species that lived about 450,000 years ago.
Volunteer Camill Jacqueye was working with another young archaeologist when she found the tooth. They are among the hundreds of trainee archaeologists who come to work in the cave every year to study human ancestors from the lower Paleolithic era, when they first began to use tools.
The owner of the tooth - a very worn lower incisor - lived during a cold, dry and windy period and, according to archaeological finds in the cave, hunted horses, reindeer, bison and rhinoceroses.
For a long time the Heidelberg jaw - including the chin and full set of lower teeth - discovered in Germany in 1907, dating to around 600,000 years ago, was the oldest fossil of human ancestors in western Europe.
However, some archaeological sites offered up evidence of stone tools dating back much earlier.
This has left many questions and stirred debate about the life and presence of human ancestors in Europe before modern humans rose out of Africa and went on to conquer the planet.
In 2013, the discovery of a fossil tooth in south-eastern Spain that dated to about 1.4 million years ago shook up the timeline of the colonisation of Europe by modern humans.