Neronian tools and a human tooth uncovered in Grotte Mandrin

Neronian tools, associated with a human tooth, suggest the brief presence of humans in western Europe 57,000 years ago before disappearing for another 10,000 years. Image adapted from © Ludovic Slimak, Laure Metz and Clément Zanolli.

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Oldest evidence of modern humans in western Europe discovered

Modern humans arrived in western Europe about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

A human tooth found in southern France suggests an early attempt by our species to colonise the continent lasted for over a thousand years before the Neanderthals re-established themselves.

A single tooth found in France's Rhône Valley shows that modern humans had arrived in western Europe by about 54,000 years ago.

A new paper involving a Museum scientist suggests it belongs to Homo sapiens, and that the species arrived in western Europe significantly earlier than previously known.

However, researchers believe they didn't stay long, abandoning the site. After a gap the Neanderthals returned, before giving way to modern humans again around 45,000 years ago.

Prof Chris Stringer, a Research Leader in human evolution at the Museum and co-author on the paper, says, 'This finding demonstrates there is even more complexity for the arrival of modern humans in Europe than previously known.

'These early modern humans probably dispersed around the Mediterranean and went up the Rhône Valley, where they may have lived for more than a thousand years before the Neanderthals eventually returned to these cave sites.

'It really suggests that modern humans tried to establish themselves in Europe again and again before they eventually succeeded.'

The paper, by an international team of researchers, was published in the journal Science Advances.


First Africa, then the world

The history of modern humans and their close relatives is a complex one, with many disagreements and debates over the exact timing of key events.

It's generally agreed that hominin species evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees around seven million years ago, and gave rise to the australopithecines which were among the first of our ancestors who could walk upright. Subsequently, Homo erectus emerged with similar body proportions to modern humans and was the first human species known to have spread beyond Africa.

Following a period of development that is still subject to intense ongoing debate, our species, Homo sapiens, diverged from the lineage of the Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, around 600,000 years ago.

Evolving in Africa, Homo sapiens attempted to spread to new lands on multiple occasions. However, the Neanderthals, who lived across Europe and Asia, were entrenched in their home as Chris explains.

'We've got what seems to be a Homo sapiens fossil in Greece at Apidima Cave dated at around 210,000 years ago,' he says. 'However, that is a really early incursion that seemingly didn't go any further and there's no archaeology with it to suggest how these people were behaving at that time.

The Rhône river at the latitude of Grotte Mandrin

Sites along the Rhône valley show evidence of advanced Neronian tools unlike anything that was made immediately before or after it. Image © Ludovic Slimak.

'At the same site about 40,000 years later, we find a Neanderthal fossil. This suggests that our species appeared here at least briefly, but that Neanderthals then returned later.'

While modern humans continued to disperse into Asia, other groups went west as they attempted to enter Europe over thousands of years. While their migration was initially thought to have occurred quite late, new finds such as modern human fossils from Czechia and Bulgaria and groups of artefacts known as the Initial Upper Palaeolithic pushed this date back to around 45,000 years ago.

However, over in France there were another group of artefacts that didn't seem to fit.

'There's a series of sites in the Rhône Valley in France where there's a strange stone tool industry called the Neronian,' Chris says. 'It exists for just a short time between two distinct periods of Neanderthal Mousterian tools.

'Neronian tools have what seem to be little projectile point heads - either tiny spearpoint heads, or even more intriguingly they could be arrow heads. These are really distinctive. There's nothing else like them in Europe at this time.'

While similar tools had been found in Africa and the Middle East, there wasn't enough evidence to suggest conclusively this was anything other than a unique Neanderthal group. However, one site in the Rhône Valley, known as Grotte Mandrin, contained more concrete evidence of who made these tools as they were found alongside nine teeth.

The first of many?

These teeth were scattered amongst the different layers, representing at least seven different humans. As DNA couldn't be extracted from them, the shape of each tooth was compared to those of modern humans and Neanderthals to try and assess their species.

The researchers found that the single tooth from the Neronian layer was set apart from the rest, which all looked Neanderthal. It showed characteristics that were instead like those of modern humans. In addition, the layer it was found in dated to between 56,800 to 51,700 years ago.

While a child's tooth can show a great deal of variation compared to that of an adult, Chris is confident it provides the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens in this area.

Archaeologists excavate the Neronian layer in Grotte Mandrin

A human tooth was found in the Neronian layer at Grotte Mandrin. Image © Ludovic Slimak.

'We've only got a single tooth at the moment, and it's a shame we don't know more about these people,' Chris says. 'But together with the completely distinct Neronian industry, it provides a persuasive scenario for modern humans in western Europe at this surprisingly early time.'

The archaeological evidence of the site suggests that modern humans could have taken over from Neanderthals in the area in as little as one year, perhaps aided by their Neronian tools. Several other sites in the area also have these tools, which are found for a short period of time.

While it's likely that modern humans and Neanderthals came in contact during this time, there's currently no contemporaneous genetic evidence that they did. It is known from later evidence that the species bred together, with most people living today having inherited around 2% of their genome from Neanderthals.

As for the French sites, the full story remains to be uncovered. How modern humans came so suddenly, and why they disappeared just as rapidly, is still unknown. However, the site offers clues that may allow us to discover the answers.

'To get to the Rhône Valley, we assume there will be sites along the northern Mediterranean coast,' Chris says. 'If this really is a dispersal, then we could be looking for sites in Italy, in Greece, in Turkey, and back to Syria and Lebanon even.

'There are also some other mysterious industries in central Europe such as the Bohunician. There's speculation that may have been made by early modern humans as well because it's nothing like anything the Neanderthals were making before or after.'

Though the Neanderthals subsequently returned to Grotte Mandrin, this came amid the beginning of the end for the species. While Homo sapiens would continue to disperse across the globe, Homo neanderthalensis became less common and diverse, before vanishing forever some 40,000 years ago.