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Neanderthals and other hominids roamed throughout Europe for millennia, but when did humans like us — Homo sapiens — actually get there?
Humans (as we know ourselves when we look in the mirror) started to appear in parts of the Middle East and Asia before trekking all the way to what would eventually become Europe. Neanderthals ruled the region from around 300,000 to 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are now thought to have set foot in Europe some 48,000 to 45,000 years ago, and while there was interbreeding with Neanderthals, they went extinct. Our species didn’t.
Those early humans also left evidence in the French cave of Grotte Mandrin. The remains of other hominids had been previously found there, but archaeologist and cultural anthropologist Ludovic Slimak of Université Toulouse has unearthed evidence of Homo sapiens having lived there 54,000 years ago. That is 10,000 years earlier than they were thought to exist in Europe. Slimak and his team revealed their findings in a study recently published in Science Advances.
So what gave away the presence of our species? Turned out to be arrowheads, soot, and a baby tooth.
“Mechanical propulsions are just unknown before the Upper Paleolithic, so the Mandrin weapons based on micro and even nano points push back in time the use of mechanical propulsions by some 10,000 years,” he told SYFY WIRE.
Whether these arrowheads belonged to spears or were shot from a bow remains unknown, but they were found in Grotte Mandrin and several other sites in the Rhône Valley. It seemed like Neanderthals had made them, which is why he called them “Neronian” in an earlier study. Neanderthals at that time had been advancing their techniques for making weapons. Slimak had to look beyond France to compare these to similar artifacts known to have been made by modern humans. Near Beirut, Lebanon, he found potential answers in the site of Ksar Akil.
Arrowheads found at Ksar Akil were also around 54,000 years old. The age of the sediments they were found in checked out. They were too eerily similar to the objects that surfaced at Grotte Mandrin to have been attributed to Neanderthals, which meant they had to have been made by early Homo sapiens. The walls of the cave itself had their own evidence. Smoke from the fires made by both Neanderthals and modern humans would leave behind a layer of soot on the stone. That was covered in deposits of calcium carbonate, a type of speleothem like stalactites and stalagmites, which accumulated on sooted walls once the fires died out.
Slimak first identified traces of soot in Grotte Mandrin in 2006. Later, it was through careful observation of the soot in fragments from the cave that researchers were able to infer that over 80,000 years, different species of humans came and went from the cave about 500 times. Layers of soot trapped in speleothem appeared like thin black films under a microscope. Speleothem would cover a previous layer of soot until the cave was occupied again and fires produced more soot that then clung to the speleothem. This happened over and over again.
“We recovered thousands of vault fragments with ancient soot deposits,” Slimak said. “Grotte Mandrin, more or less, a 6-month temporal resolution while in paleolithic archeology, classic resolution is based on carbon-14 accuracy — a thousand years at best for these far periods.”
Just one baby tooth was the last piece of evidence. After being compared to hundreds of other hominid teeth, having DNA extracted and being extensively analyzed through CT scans, the Mandrin E tooth was determined to have come from a child that couldn’t have been anything else but Homo sapiens. DNA is notorious for degrading over long stretches of time, but there was some ancient DNA left, enough to be sequenced and further prove this was one of our species. The child is thought to have have been between 2 and 6 years old at the time of death.
Obviously, Homo sapiens were in that cave earlier than anyone had expected them to be. What still remains a mystery is why they disappeared. They may have just moved on.
“The Rhône river is the most important corridor of migration of all Europe, the only way to join Mediterranean and continental Europe,” said Slimak. “So people came from all western Euraisa, and had to cross through this region."
As for taking over the world, there were still many millennia before humans would do that.