Human bones unearthed in a German cave have changed the timeline of ancient human history

Researchers recovered ancient human bone fragments from the Ilsenhöhle cave in Ranis, Germany.Tim Schüler / TLDA

  • Human bones in a German cave place Homo Sapiens in Europe 7,500 years earlier than experts thought.

  • The findings suggest that Homo sapiens lived near Neanderthals for millennia, which is a new revelation.

  • Scientists used to think that Homo sapiens arrived around the time Neanderthals became extinct.

Researchers on the hunt to settle a long-standing debate ended up rewriting the timeline of ancient human history.

For years, archaeologists have argued about an ancient culture with the unwieldy title: the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician technocomplex. Even scientists know that’s a mouthful, so they call it the LRJ for short.

The LRJ is characterized by the creation of specific blades and blade tips, which share aspects of both Neanderthal and Homo sapien craftsmanship.

Old stone flints against a black backgroundOld stone flints against a black background

LRJ stone tools recently excavated at Ranis.Josephine Schubert / Museum Burg Ranis

The debate is over over who created them, and the answer could help provide clues about what happened about 45,000 years ago – when Neanderthals, one of our closest human relatives, mysteriously went extinct across Europe, while Homo sapiens eventually flourished.

“The conventional wisdom has been to consider that they were most likely made by late Neanderthals,” says co-author Jean-Jacques Hublin, professor of paleoanthropology at the College de France.

But Hublin and his colleagues wanted to settle the debate once and for all.

This led them to Ilsenhöhle Cave in Ranis, Germany, one of several locations in northwestern Europe where LRJ artifacts have been found.

The opening of the Ilsenhöhle cave in Ranis, GermanyThe opening of the Ilsenhöhle cave in Ranis, Germany

The opening of the Ilsenhöhle cave in Ranis, Germany.Tim Schüler / TLDA

In addition to solving the mystery they sought, the researchers discovered much more.

Mining ancient DNA

When they excavated the cave, the researchers discovered more than just LRJ artifacts: they also came across small bone fragments.

Most of the bones were too small to identify which animal they came from based on their appearance.

But thanks to a revealing new analysis called zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry, or ZooMS, the researchers were able to determine that 13 of the approximately 2,000 bone fragments they analyzed belonged to early humans.

A scientist loads a sample into an isotope ratio mass spectrometer.A scientist loads a sample into an isotope ratio mass spectrometer.

The researchers analyzed animal teeth found in Ranis to gain insight into the climate in which these animals lived.Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The next step was to determine what species of ancient people they came from. If the team could figure that out, it would likely point them to who created the LRJ artifacts in the cave, thus solving the mystery, Hublin said.

To this end, they extracted DNA, which confirmed that the bones belonged to Homo sapiens, providing strong evidence that they were responsible for the LRJ artifacts. “Voila!” Hublin said triumphantly.

But they weren’t done yet.

A scientist uses a pipette from behind a glass shield.A scientist uses a pipette from behind a glass shield.

The researchers extracted protein from the bone fragments to analyze their DNA.Dorothea Mylopotamitaki

The team also used radiocarbon dating to date the bones and were surprised by what they discovered.

According to their data, Homo sapiens was present in Ranis 47,500 years ago – thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Unlikely neighbors

Until this discovery, archaeologists believed that Homo sapiens only arrived in Western Europe 42,000 years ago and contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Archaeological excavation shaftArchaeological excavation shaft

To reach the LRJ layer, archaeologists had to dive into an 8-meter deep shaft under Ranis.Marcel Weiss

A growing library of evidence has pushed this timeline back further and further. Hublin and the team’s discoveries are the latest wave of research that adds to the stack even further.

The research was published in three articles in peer-reviewed journals Nature And Nature ecology and evolution and paints a completely different picture of history.

It suggests that small ‘pioneer groups’ of Homo sapiens lived in Europe alongside Neanderthals for thousands of years before the species became extinct.

Whether these two groups ever interacted during that time remains unclear.

“It’s not at all the picture we had years ago of this wave of Homo sapiens coming into Europe and replacing the Neanderthals,” Hublin said. “What we see now is that it was not a wave, but several waves.”

Furthermore, the research suggests that these early “pioneers” of Homo sapien were more hardcore than we have given them credit for.

Hard people

Previous research claimed that Homo sapiens could only enter Europe during warmer periods because they were adapted to the warm climate of Africa, where they originated.

But the specimens and artifacts found at Ranis suggest that they actually entered directly through the cold northwest and that this region was much colder than previously thought.

Analysis of animal teeth collected at the site revealed that the climate was 7 to 15 degrees Celsius colder than today, similar to that of northern Scandinavia or parts of Siberia, Hublin said.

In addition, analysis of animal remains revealed that Ranis was home to mammals adapted to extreme cold, including woolly mammoths, reindeer and wolverines.

Left: animal bones against a black background.  Right: Zoo archaeologist Geoff Smith examines one of these bones with a magnifying glass.Left: animal bones against a black background.  Right: Zoo archaeologist Geoff Smith examines one of these bones with a magnifying glass.

Analysis of more than 1,000 animal bones from Ranis showed that early Homo sapiens processed the carcasses of deer, but also of carnivores, including wolves.Geoff M. Smith

Questions remain about how warm-weather-adapted Homo sapiens survived such a dramatic transition. But they likely made warm clothes from fur from these animals, explains co-author Geoff Smith, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Kent.

Rewriting prehistory

Together, these findings paint a picture of human prehistory that is very different from the one we had before. But there are still questions that need to be answered.

The researchers have no plans to excavate Ranis further and the cave has been closed for safety reasons. But they will continue to study the specimens and artifacts from this latest dig to delve deeper into the interactions between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals during this time.

“I think we have more to discover,” Hublin said. “What lies ahead is to understand what was going on among late Neanderthals. To what extent have they been penetrated by these newcomers? What kind of interactions do they have with them? But I think it is a nice step that the LRJ story has been resolved.”

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