Homo sapiens may have reached Europe 10,000 years earlier than previously thought

Migrations to the continent started long before Neandertals died out, new finds suggest

image of a stone point with a sharp edge

Evidence of the earliest known Homo sapiens in Europe, including this sharp-edged stone point, comes from a French rock-shelter and dates to as early as 56,800 years ago, researchers say.

L. Slimak

Stone Age Homo sapiens began migrating into Europe much longer ago than has typically been assumed.

Discoveries at a rock-shelter in southern France put H. sapiens in Europe as early as 56,800 years ago, a new study finds. That’s around 10,000 years earlier than previously thought (SN: 5/11/20).

The French site, called Grotte Mandrin, was alternately occupied by the H. sapiens newcomers and Neandertals native to Europe, replacing each other a couple of times before Neandertals died out roughly 40,000 years ago, researchers report February 9 in Science Advances.

The finds from the rock-shelter, situated 225 meters above the middle Rhône River Valley, challenge a popular view that Neandertals died out within a few thousand years of H. sapiens reaching Europe, say archaeologist Ludovic Slimak of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in France and colleagues.

Slimak has directed excavations at Grotte Mandrin for the last 24 years. Nearly 60,000 stone artifacts and more than 70,000 bones of horses, bison and other animals have been unearthed in 12 sediment layers. Only nine isolated hominid teeth have been found in five of those layers. But these teeth can be categorized as either Neandertal or H. sapiens based on their shapes and sizes, the researchers say. The oldest H. sapiens material in the rock-shelter includes a single tooth from a 2- to 6-year-old child, Slimak says.

Dating of each sediment layer relied on radiocarbon age estimates for excavated bone artifacts and calculations of the time elapsed since each set of finds was buried and certain stones were heated during toolmaking.

Given this evidence, it now appears that H. sapiens groups periodically entered southern Europe long before Neandertals went extinct, says paleoanthropologist Isabelle Crevecoeur of the University of Bordeaux in France, who did not participate in the new study. “The arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe after the demise of Neandertals was probably the end of a long, sometimes unsuccessful, migration process.”

H. sapiens who first settled at Grotte Mandrin consisted of several dozen individuals or more, Slimak estimates. Archaeological evidence indicates that, between 56,800 and 51,700 years ago, those ancient people inhabited the site for some 40 years. “This was not a short-term hunter-gatherer camp but a tentative colonization of Europe,” Slimak says.

Resident Neandertals and ancient H. sapiens migrants had at least brief contacts, Slimak says. Flint used by H. sapiens to make tools came from sources located within 100 kilometers of the rock-shelter in all directions, knowledge that could have been acquired only with the help of Neandertals already well-versed in the region’s landscape, Slimak contends.

After H. sapiens’ 40-year stay, Neandertals returned to the rock-shelter, where their earliest occupations date as far back as 120,000 years ago, the researchers found. H. sapiens reoccupied the site between about 44,100 and 41,500 years ago — roughly 14,000 years after their initial visit. After that, Neandertals left no signs of having come back.

In an unexpected twist, small stone points and blades made by Grotte Mandrin H. sapiens as many as 56,800 years ago match those previously attributed to H. sapiens at a site in Lebanon dating to around 40,000 years ago. Archaeologists have struggled for over a century to figure out who made the same types of stone tools, dating to about the same time, at several middle Rhône Valley sites, including Grotte Mandrin.

Ancient Middle Easterners whose descendants made tools at the Lebanese site traveled some 3,000 kilometers to reach Grotte Mandrin, likely by navigating vessels of some kind along the Mediterranean coast, Slimak suspects. Their toolmaking tradition was then passed down through many generations by groups living near the rock-shelter, he speculates.

Though no evidence exists of ancient sea trips from the Middle East to what’s now southern France, “it seems that H. sapiens arrived in Europe several times, and we cannot exclude that [they] arrived even earlier than 56,000 years ago,” says paleoanthropologist Stefano Benazzi of the University of Bologna in Italy, who was not part of Slimak’s team.

But the significance of the Grotte Mandrin finds, like the evolutionary relationship of H. sapiens to Neandertals (SN: 12/13/21), is controversial. A single H. sapiens tooth deposited between 56,800 and 51,700 years ago can’t conclusively demonstrate that H. sapiens but not Neandertals made tools found in that sediment layer, says evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar National Museum.

Genetic evidence points to mating between Neandertals and H. sapiens (SN: 4/7/21), raising the possibility that hybrid offspring of those populations fashioned stone tools at the French site, Finlayson says.

To confirm the evolutionary identities of Grotte Mandrin’s various Stone Age toolmakers, Slimak’s team is now attempting to extract ancient DNA from hominid teeth and sediment at the site.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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