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An international team of scientists led by CNRS researcher Dr Ludovic Slimak of the Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, and including Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Evolution at the Natural History Museum in London, have discovered evidence of the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens) in western Europe from a cave in France’s Rhône Valley.
An international team of scientists led by CNRS researcher Dr Ludovic Slimak of the Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, and including Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Evolution at the Natural History Museum in London, have discovered evidence of the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens) in western Europe from a cave in France’s Rhône Valley. The cave, known as Grotte Mandrin, also documents the first clear alternating occupation of a site by Neanderthals and modern humans.
Apart from a possible sporadic pulse recorded in Greece during the Middle Pleistocene, the first settlements of modern humans in Europe have been constrained to around 45,000-43,000 years ago. This new evidence – the fossil of a deciduous upper molar from a modern human child – pushes this date back by about 10,000 years.
Dental remains from the cave represent at least seven individuals across 12 archaeological layers. The researchers identified six of these individuals as Neanderthal, but in a layer sandwiched between the Neanderthal layers, a fossil molar from a modern human child was found.
‘The Mandrin findings document the first clearly demonstrable alternating occupation of a site by Neanderthals and modern humans,’ said Professor Stringer. ‘We’ve often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals, but this new evidence suggests that both the appearance of modern humans in Europe and disappearance of Neanderthals is much more complex than that’.
Alongside the modern human molar, stone tools from the unique Neronian industry were discovered. The Neronian industry, found in the Rhône Valley, has previously been regarded as a technological anomaly due to its distinctive features and the fact it had been found in between classic Neanderthal Mousterian layers. However, in Grotte Mandrin, the presence of the modern human molar in the Neronian layer led researchers to directly link this stone tool industry with Homo sapiens for the first time.
‘In Grotte Mandrin, you’ve got a really nice sequence dated between about 60-40,000 years ago,’ said Professor Stringer. In there are Mousterian stone tools made by Neanderthals, then the Neronian, then back to Mousterian tools, and then afterwards the appearance of modern humans with the Aurignacian industry.
‘The presence of the modern human molar alongside the Neronian is where the story really gets firmed up - both Neanderthal and modern human populations replaced the other several times in the same territory’.
The results from Grotte Mandrin reveal an unexpectedly complex process of hominin successions in the middle Rhône Valley, the most important natural corridor linking the Mediterranean Basin with the Northern European steppes. Modern humans have been documented in the Levantine area around 54,000 years ago, but before this study there remained a gap of about 10,000 years before records appeared in Europe at sites such as Zlaty Kun in Czechia and Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria. The finds from Grotte Mandrin suggest the Mediterranean basin played a major role in the geographic expansion of modern humans into Western Eurasia.
‘The findings from Mandrin are really exciting and are another piece in the puzzle of how and when modern humans arrived in Europe,’ concludes Professor Stringer. ‘Understanding more about the overlap between modern humans and other hominins in Eurasia is vital to understanding more about their interactions, and how we became the last remaining human species.’
The study Modern human incursion into Neanderthal territories 54,000 years ago at Mandrin, France is published in Science Advances.
Notes to editors
Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151
Images available to download here.
Video interview with Prof. Chris Stringer available here (© The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London).
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