New research suggests that modern humans lived in Europe 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, in Neanderthal territories

It is no exaggeration to assume that the inhabitants of the Mediterranean had access to the technologies of boats 54,000 years ago and used them to explore along the coasts of this contained sea.

Perched about 100 meters on the slopes of the Pre-Alps in southern France, a humble rock shelter overlooks the Rhone Valley. It is a strategic point in the landscape, because here the Rhône flows in a strait between two mountain ranges. For millennia, the inhabitants of the rock shelter would have had a breathtaking view of the herds of animals migrating between the Mediterranean region and the plains of northern Europe, now replaced by TGVs and up to 180 000 vehicles per day on one of the busiest highways on the continent. .

Mandrin Cave is somewhat camouflaged as a rocky outcrop when viewed from afar. Ludovic Slimak

The site, recognized in the 1960s and named Grotte Mandrin in honor of French folk hero Louis Mandrin, has been a treasured spot for over 100,000 years. Stone artifacts and animal bones left by the ancient hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic period were quickly covered by the glacial dust that blew from the north on the famous mistral winds, keeping the remains well preserved.

people kneeling on the ground, working in the dirt
View of the excavations at the entrance to the Grotte Mandrin. Ludovic Slimak

Since 1990, our research team at carefully studied the top 10 feet (3 meters) of sediment on the floor of the cave. Based on artifacts and tooth fossils, we believe Mandrin is rewriting the consensus history of when modern humans first traveled to Europe.

Human origins researchers have generally agreed that between 300,000 and 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals and their ancestors occupied Europe. Occasionally during this period they had contact with modern humans in the Levant and parts of Asia. Then around 48,000 to 45,000 years ago, modern humans – basically us – extended to the rest of the world and the Neanderthals and all other archaic humans disappeared.

In the magazine Scientists progress, we describe our discovery of evidence that modern humans lived 54,000 years ago in Mandrin. This is some 10 millennia earlier than our species was previously thought to be in Europe and over a thousand miles west (1,700 kilometers) of the the oldest known site, in Bulgaria. And fascinatingly, Neanderthals seem to have used the cave before and after modern human occupation.

Clues from tiny stone spikes and a tooth

The first curious find to emerge during the first decade of Mandrin Cave excavations was 1,500 tiny triangular stone points identified in what we have called Layer E. Some less than half an inch (1 cm) in length, these points resemble arrowheads. They have no technological precursors or successors in the surrounding 11 archaeological layers of Neanderthal artifacts in the cave.

Triangular stone dots on black background.
These Neronian spikes have no technological equivalent among the Neanderthal groups that lived before and after the arrival of the first modern humans at Grotte Mandrin. Laure Metz and Ludovic Slimak, CC BY-ND

Who made them? A handful of other sites in the middle Rhone Valley are also home to these tiny spikes. But these sites were excavated long ago with pickaxes, making it hard to tell whether the dots appeared abruptly or gradually over time, perhaps Neanderthals developed the methods to make them. In 2004, one of us, Ludovic Slimak, named this distinctive tradition “Neronian” after the nearby site where these tiny dots were first excavated.

Without more local comparison sites, two of us, Laure Metz and Slimak, turned to an area where modern humans certainly lived 54,000 years ago: the eastern Mediterranean. Specifically, the site of Ksar Akil near Beirut preserves what may be the longest and richest Paleolithic record in all of Eurasia.

map of the mediterranean region with sketches of overlaid stone points
On opposite shores of the Mediterranean, similar stone points were made by Homo sapiens Around the same time. Laure Metz and Ludovic Slimak, CC BY-ND

Our analyzes of stone artifacts from Ksar Akil show a layer of sediment of similar age with tiny spikes of the same size and made in the same technical traditions as those at Mandrin.

This similarity strongly suggests that the Neeronian artifacts were not made by Neanderthals, but rather by a group of modern human explorers who entered the region much earlier than expected.

The final piece of the puzzle came in 2018, when one of us, Clement Zanollianalyzed the nine hominid teeth that we had found in the different layers during the excavation. Through careful analysis using CT scans and comparisons with hundreds of other fossils, we were able to determine that Mandrin E’s tooth, a single milk tooth from a child aged 2 to 6, originated from a modern human and could not have come from a Neanderthal.

fossil teeth and stone tools found in the same layer are side by side
The cultural and anthropological testimonies of the Grotte Mandrin show the arrival of Homo sapiens in the heart of Neanderthal territories. Ludovic Slimak, CC BY-ND

Based on stone point technologies and their contexts at other sites, as well as this fossil evidence, we conclude that the makers of the Neronian points at Mandrin Cave were modern humans.

Read layers of campfire soot like dark circles

But Mandrin’s discoveries don’t stop there. In all layers of the site, fragments of the shelter walls and roof fell and were buried with the fossils and artifacts.

When Neanderthals and modern humans made fires at the site, the smoke left a layer of soot on these surfaces. Then, the following season, a thin layer of calcium carbonate called a speleothem would cover it. This cycle was repeated again and again.

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We first discovered these soot vault fragments in 2006, and the team has recovered thousands of them, year after year, from every archaeological layer in Mandrin. A decade of work per team member Segolene Vandevelde showed that these patterns can be read like tree rings to tell us how often and for how long groups visited the site, demonstrating that human groups came to Mandrin about 500 times in 80,000 years.

Vandevelde was then able to determine how much time separated the last Neanderthal fire from the first modern human fire in the cave, showing that only a maximum of one year elapsed between Neanderthals using Cave Mandrin and modern humans moving in. .

After modern humans occupied Mandrin every year for about forty years, one or two generations, they disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as they had appeared. Neanderthals then regularly reoccupied Mandrin over the next 12,000 years.

Multiple human species sharing the landscape

How did these modern humans arrive so early in Western Europe?

Archaeological evidence from Australia shows that modern humans reached this continent 65,000 years ago. Of course, they would have needed a boat to cross the ocean to get there. It is therefore not an exaggeration to assume that the inhabitants of the Mediterranean had access to the technologies of boats 54,000 years ago and used them to explore along the coasts of this contained sea.

fine stone against the dirt floor
View of a long flint blade emerging from the Mandrin Cave sediment. Ludovic Slimak, CC BY-ND

We know from the sources of the flint used to make the Mandrin Cave artifacts that Neanderthals and modern humans roamed widely, approximately 60 miles (100 km) in any direction around the construction site.

How did modern humans discover all these stone resources on such a vast and varied landscape in such a short time? Did they have relations with the Neanderthals, who could have exchanged information or served as guides? Was it a time when the two bands crossed paths?

Our ongoing work at Mandrin will shed light on these and other questions about our earliest ancestors in Europe.The conversation

Ludovic SlimakPermanent member of the CNRS, Toulouse-Jean Jaures University; Clement Zanollipaleoanthropologist, University of Bordeaux; Jason E. Lewislecturer in anthropology and deputy director of the Turkana Basin Institute, Stony Brook University (State University of New York)and Laura Metzarchaeologist at Aix-Marseille University and affiliated researcher in anthropology, University of Connecticut

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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