Bulgarian archaeologists have found what they claim is Europe's oldest skeleton, which they have named "Julia Roberts" because the woman was a "rare beauty" with a nearly flawless set of teeth.The archaeologists reported their findings in the Sofia News Agency and Bulgaria's Standart News newspaper.
If radiocarbon analysis, scheduled to take place in Germany, confirms the skeleton's suspected age of 9,000 years old, the find will predate all other human remains discovered in the Balkans by several centuries. The female skeleton will represent the first agricultural civilisation in the region.
A team of archaeologist led by Dr Georgi Ganetsovski, director of the prehistory department of the Vraca District Museum, excavated her remains near the village of Ohoden in the Vrasa district of northwest Bulgaria. In the past few days, another dig at nearby Moguila village in the district of Yambol yielded several 3,000-year-old skeletons of unusual height for the time, over 6 feet 6 inches.
The remains of the tall individuals were found curled up in a foetal position, which was believed to lead to immortality.
Researchers say all of the skeletons, including the Stone Age Julia, were Thracian, a race that originated at the Black Sea steppe and was praised by Homer. The Greek epic poet wrote that the Thracians took part in the Trojan War "with the most handsome and well-built horses, whiter than snow and fleet as deer."
The ancient female skeleton, which like a real movie star had a less glamorous name - Prehistoric Todorka - before becoming "Julia," died as a young woman at what appears to have been an ancient farming community.
"This woman skeleton is five centuries older than those that were found in the Balkans and belongs to the first generation of farmers that inhabited the region," said Ganetsovski.
Charred wheat grains, cattle bones and flint tools were found at the same site, along with a well-preserved dwelling that contained a cellar. The early farmers dug the residence into the ground so that half of it would have been subterranean.
Ganetsovski said that Prehistoric Julia had Mediterranean features and would have possessed a dazzling smile due to her near-perfect, straight, white teeth, which were almost unheard of in ancient times because of poor dental care and gritty diets that wore down enamel.
"She was a rare beauty and could have competed with today's Hollywood stars with her perfect set of teeth," Ganetsovski said. "She is a Stone Age Julia Roberts. She would have had a perfect smile - it really is a puzzle."
The archaeologist suspects that, in addition to good genes, Julia might have used an early toothpaste concoction. Last year, a team of Viennese scientists discovered an old Egyptian toothpaste formula. It suggests that teeth cleaning in the ancient world was not as rare as experts once thought.
The Egyptian recipe, which might have inspired a Thracian toothpaste, included rock salt mixed with smaller amounts of mint, iris and 20 grains of pepper. All of the ingredients were pounded into a paste before being applied to the teeth.
Sofia Archaeology Museum director Vasil Nikolov agrees with the importance of the recent Bulgarian finds.
When asked about the female skeleton, he said the discovery confirms that "a modern European civilisation lived in our region".
Future excavations are planned in Bulgaria at the archaeological sites, which are now collectively referred to as the "Valley of the Thracian Kings." In 45 A.D., the Romans conquered the Thracians, who interbred with locals and later lost their once distinct culture.