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Microscopic fragments of proteins and DNA recovered from bones discovered in 8 meters (26 feet) of cave dirt have revealed that Neanderthals and humans were probably living side by side in Northern Europe as early as 45,000 years ago.
Genetic analysis of the fossils, which were found in a cave near the town of Ranis in eastern Germany, suggested that modern humans were the makers of distinctive, leaf-shaped stone tools that archaeologists once believed were crafted by Neanderthals, the heavy-set hominins . that lived in Europe until about 40,000 years ago.
It was not previously known that modern humans, or homo sapiens, lived as far north as the region where the tools were made.
“The Ranis Cave provides evidence for the first dispersal of Homo sapiens across the higher latitudes of Europe. It turns out that stone artifacts thought to have been produced by Neanderthals were in fact part of the early Homo sapiens toolkit,” said study author Jean-Jacques Hublin, professor at the Collège de France in Paris and director emeritus of the University of Paris. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in a press release.
“This fundamentally changes our previous knowledge of that period: Homo sapiens reached northwestern Europe long before the disappearance of Neanderthals in southwestern Europe.”
The discovery means the two groups, which once interbred and left most humans alive today with traces of Neanderthal DNA, may have overlapped for thousands of years. It also shows that Homo sapiens, our species, crossed the Alps into the cold regions of northern and central Europe earlier than previously thought.
Three studies detailing the discoveries and laboratory analyzes were published Wednesday in the journals Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Earliest Homo sapiens fossils found north of the Alps
The style of stone tool found in Ranis has also been discovered elsewhere in Europe, from Moravia and eastern Poland to the British Isles, according to the studies. Archaeologists call the tool style Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician, or LRJ, referring to the places where it was first identified.
To identify who created the artifacts, the team excavated the Ilsenhöhle cave near Ranis from 2016 to 2022. When the cave was first excavated in the 1930s, only the tools were found and analyzed. This time the team was able to dig deeper and more systematically, ultimately uncovering human fossils there for the first time.
“The challenge was to excavate the entire eight-meter sequence from top to bottom, hoping that some deposits would remain from the 1930s excavation,” said co-author Marcel Weiss, a researcher at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg and the Max Planck Institute. for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a statement. “We were lucky to find a 1.7 meter thick boulder that the previous excavators could not get past. After removing that rock by hand, we finally exposed the LRJ layers and even found human fossils.”
However, the human remains were not immediately recognizable among the hundreds of bone fragments unearthed during the six-year excavation. Only later did the team know definitively that the sediment layers containing the LRJ’s stone tools also contained human remains.
The researchers used proteins from bone fragments to identify the animal and human remains found, a technique known as paleoproteomics. It allows scientists to identify human and animal bones when their shape is unclear or uncertain. Using the same technique, the team also managed to identify human remains among bones excavated in the 1930s.
However, the protein analysis could only identify the bones as belonging to hominids – a category that includes Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals. To distinguish between the two, the team was able to extract fragments of ancient DNA from the 13 human fossils they identified.
“We confirmed that the skeletal fragments belonged to Homo sapiens,” said co-author Elena Zavala, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in the release.
“Interestingly, several fragments shared the same mitochondrial DNA sequences – even fragments from different digs,” Zavala added. “This indicates that the fragments belonged to the same individual or were maternal relatives, linking these new finds to those from decades ago.”
Radiocarbon dating of the fossils and other artifacts in the cave suggested that these early humans lived there about 45,000 years ago, making them the earliest Homo sapiens known to have lived in northwestern Europe.
The region would then have had a dramatically different climate, with conditions typical of the steppe tundra, such as those in present-day Siberia. The excavations revealed the presence of reindeer, cave bears, woolly rhinos and horses. The researchers also concluded that cave bears and hibernating hyenas mainly used the cave, where there was only occasional human presence.
“This shows that even these earlier groups of Homo sapiens that spread across Eurasia already had some ability to adapt to such harsh climatic conditions,” said co-author Sarah Pederzani, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of La Laguna in Spain, who led the paleoclimate study of the site. “Until recently, it was thought that resilience to cold climate conditions only became apparent several thousand years later, so this is a fascinating and surprising result,” she said, according to the press release.
William E. Banks, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France, said the studies showed how new methods allow archaeologists to examine sites in unprecedented detail, making it more possible to determine when a site was occupied.
The “discoveries provide another important piece of the puzzle of this culturally and demographically complex period in Europe,” Banks noted in a commentary published alongside the studies. However, Banks, who was not involved in the research, added that archaeologists “are careful not to generalize the findings from one or two sites.”
He noted that recent discoveries suggested that Neanderthals were more culturally and cognitively complex than popular stereotypes suggest, and that archaeologists “should not necessarily assume in all cases” that modern humans made more complex styles of stone tools from that crucial period before the Neanderthals disappeared.
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