Does this fossil prove northern Europe's first human was a resident of... Torquay?

With his rather primitive opinions, brusque manner and silly walk, Basil Fawlty seemed like a throwback to another age. Now, scientists may have worked out why.

Torquay, the seaside setting of Fawlty Towers, was home to the first-known modern Britons.

A fossilised jaw bone, complete with three teeth, unearthed in a cave on the outskirts of the Devon resort has been dated to between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.

All mouth: This fragment of human jawbone, containing three teeth, belonged to the earliest known modern human living in England and was discovered at Kent's Cavern Devon in 1927

It isn't known whether the jawbone belonged to a man or a woman. But wear and tear of the teeth and evidence of gum disease suggests that he – or she – was fairly elderly.

The jawbone has been confirmed as human, making it the oldest evidence of homo sapiens, or modern human life, in the UK – and in northern Europe.

In fact, it is one of the oldest fossils of its type outside Africa.

The new date, announced in the prestigious journal Nature, pushes back the first-known arrival of modern humans in Britain by thousands of years.

It also means that modern humans – sturdier versions of ourselves with bigger brains and bigger teeth – mingled with Neanderthals in Europe for millennia, raising the possibility of interbreeding.

The jaw bone was found in Kent's Cavern in Devon in 1927 and had been dated to be from 35,000 years ago. 

Recalculation:The jaw bone was found in Kent's Cavern in Devon (pitured) and had originally been dated as 35,000 years old

Ageing quickly: A CT scan image of the human jawbone which dated it it more accurately, revealing it to be 7,000 years older than first thought

There was also some uncertainty over whether it came from a human or a Neanderthal.  

Now, the advent of CT scanning and advances in radiocarbon dating that allow errors from contaminants to be filtered out have solved the riddle.

Oxford University researcher Professor Tom Higham said: 'Radiocarbon dating of ancient bones is very difficult to do.

'Because the initial date from this fragment of jawbone was affected by traces of modern glue, the initial measurement was too young.

'The new dating evidence allows us, for the first time, to pinpoint the real age of this key specimen.

'We believe this piece of jawbone is the earliest direct evidence we have of modern humans in northwestern Europe.'

Torquay harbour: While the town is picturesque, the first humans were not early tourists, they would have simply followed their food to the spot

However, the Torquay jawbone is not the first fossil evidence of modern human's arrival in Europe after leaving Africa around 60,000 years ago. That claim to fame goes to two milk teeth found in an Italian cave.

They have also been analysed using the latest techniques and are believed to be from 43,000 to 45,000 years ago, making them fractionally older than the Torquay jawbone.

Natural History Museum researcher Professor Chris Stringer said: 'It means that potentially we've got a quite a complex story of movements of modern people into Europe.

'Potentially a southern wave coming in along the southern European coast and possibly a slightly later wave into Britain.

'Britain was right on the edge of the inhabited world and we've got modern humans there – it's very exciting.'

These first modern Britons would have been hunter-gatherers brought to these shores by their pursuit of herds of reindeer or horses or other sources of food during a warm 'blip' in the last Ice Age.

Professor Stringer said: 'They wouldn't have said "Oooh, we'll see what's over there." They would have been following their food.'

However, it is unlikely they gained more than a foothold in Britain, before being wiped out by the more usual severe cold of the Ice Age.

Several more short-lived waves of migration followed and our island has only been continuously occupied for the last 11,500 years.

Previous work by Professor Stringer named Norfolk as the cradle of British civilisation after the county was found to have been home to the first primitive humans.

These ancient Britons settled near what is today the village of Happisburgh up to 950,000 years ago.