A team of French scientists found skeletal remains of Homo sapiens in association with Neronian tools. The discovery places the existence of Homo sapiens in Europe at around 56.8-51.7 kya (one thousand years ago), nearly ten millennia before what was conventionally thought. The site of the discovery is a rock shelter named Grotte Mandrin in the Rhone Valley in France.
Homo sapiens appears in Europe much later, with a consistent fossil record found only ~45 kya. Paleoanthropologists have attributed this to geographical barriers as well as the presence of archaic species of hominids like Neanderthals. It is important to contrast this with the dispersal of Homo sapiens from Africa to other parts of the world. Homo sapiens emerged in Africa ~300 kya, and their earliest remains outside Africa are from Israel ~194-177 kya (ref 3). According to the current model, they are supposed to have entered Asia around 80-60 kya. Their arrival in Australia was around 65 kya, and in the Americas (the “New World”) was only 25 kya.
The site consists of a 3 m deep stratigraphic sequence composed of 12 archaeological layers. A considerable number of dental remains have been recovered from all layers, with layer E yielding a ‘deciduous maxillary second molar crown’. The study examines characteristics such as tooth morphology and enamel thickness to conclude that the single tooth found in the E layer was distinct from those of Neanderthals recovered from other layers because it came from an individual Homo sapiens.
The article explains that his “root thins towards the apical part, either because it was still growing or because it was in an advanced stage of resorption” and most likely belonged to a child. The E-layer date was determined – using geochronological sequence and radiocarbon – to be 56.8-51.7 kya.
Layer E is marked by a lithic industry made up of very small points not exceeding one centimeter in length. These are clearly distinguished from the Mousterian industry which characterizes the other layers.
Stone tools are conventionally classified into “lithic industries”, according to their morphological characteristics and are associated with a particular group of hominids. For example, the Aurignacian is associated with modern humans, the Mousterian is associated with Neanderthals, and the Acheulean with Homo erectus. The names of industries usually come from where they were first discovered. The lithic industry found in Layer E has been christened “Neronian”, after Neron’s Cave where it was first documented. This typology of tools is closer to that of some younger sites.
The Neronian tools recovered from layer E show great homogeneity, which says a lot about the origin of the rocks: nearly half of the rocks come from a very large area, up to a radius of 90 km. “Layer E humans had great territorial influence,” the study asserts. Moreover, Neronian technologies differ from Mousterian technologies in that they are extremely standardized to millimetric precision – and extremely light.
“It is very likely that these points were used in advanced mechanically propelled weapon systems such as the bow or thruster, while Neanderthal groups had heavy hand-cast spears,” says Ludovic Slimak, author. principal of the study, in an exchange of e-mails.
The authors also considered using DNA marker analysis to determine whether the aforementioned molar found in association with Neronian technology belonged to a Homo sapiens or a Neanderthal individual, but decided against it. “We attempted paleogenetic analyzes on a few horse teeth from the same level where the modern human tooth was found, but unfortunately it was impossible to recover a sufficient amount of DNA and we therefore decided not to carry out any DNA analysis on the human tooth,” Clement Zanolli, one of the study’s corresponding authors, said in an email with indianexpress.com.
“The tooth is very precious. There’s a chance there’s DNA preserved in it,’ adds Ludovic Slimak. The idea of DNA extraction was put on hold until they had the technology to get a good yield of DNA from the tooth.
Overall, the finding implies that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did indeed share the same space and time, albeit for only a few decades. Grotte Mandrin shows a scenario where the site was occupied by Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in rapid succession: a Neanderthal house, a brief modern human incursion at 56-51 kya, and a Neanderthal reoccupation. The study argues that the reason behind this is that the Rhône forms “the only natural path” between continental Europe and the Mediterranean. Slimak says it’s no coincidence that the Rhone Valley is also home to Grotte Chauvet, the oldest decorated cave in the world, just 25 km from Grotte Mandrin.
The author is a freelance science communicator. ([email protected])