Unearthed 45,000-year-old bones are the oldest modern human remains in Central Europe. New research suggests that modern humans ventured into chilly Northern Europe by crossing the Alps. This finding indicates that Homo sapiens might have cohabitated with Neanderthals in Europe for a much longer period than previously believed.
The discovery consists of 13 bone fragments belonging to Homo sapiens, uncovered in a cave in Germany, dating back between 44,000 and 47,500 years. These remains represent the oldest known Homo sapiens specimens from Central and Northwest Europe. The researchers were surprised by this discovery, given the frigid climate of the region during that period.
"This shows that even these earlier groups of Homo sapiens dispersing across Eurasia already had some capacity to adapt to such harsh climatic conditions," Sarah Pederzani, an archaeologist at the University of La Laguna in Spain and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany who led the paleoclimate study of the site said in a statement.
When Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, they encountered Neanderthals, their closest extinct relatives, who had inhabited the continent for over 200,000 years until their extinction around 40,000 years ago. Previous research indicated that Homo sapiens reached Southwest Europe around 46,000 years ago. The dynamics of interactions between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals during the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition (47,000 to 42,000 years ago) remain a subject of intense debate, including the extent to which Homo sapiens may have influenced the demise of Neanderthals.
To delve into this enigmatic period, researchers conducted three new studies examining artifacts and climate conditions from that era. Their findings, published online on Wednesday (January 31) in the journal Natureand two studies in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, shed light on the transitional phase. Previous archaeological digs uncovered a variety of stone tool manufacturing techniques, such as the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician (LRJ) industry, but it was unclear whether Neanderthals or Homo sapiens produced these. Scientist digging out the bones with thier tools
"The Middle Paleolithic in Europe [about 300,000 to 35,000 years ago] is linked with Neanderthals, while the Upper Paleolithic in Europe [about 35,000 to 10,000 years ago] is linked with modern H. sapiens," study co-author Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said. "The artifacts of the transitional period have sort of mixed features."
In one of the recent studies, researchers investigated artifacts from the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician (LRJ) industry, which included intricately crafted leaf-shaped stone tools found across Northern Europe from Germany to Britain.
The scientists concentrated on examining thousands of bone fragments associated with LRJ artifacts discovered in Ilsenhöhle (Ilse's cave) in Ranis, Germany. They not only conducted new excavations at the site but also reanalyzed remains from the 1930s excavations, now housed in museum collections.
One of the studies revealed that the cave was intermittently used by denning hyenas, hibernating cave bears, and small groups of hominins - likely either Homo sapiens or Neanderthals - who consumed reindeer, woolly rhinoceroses, and horses. However, many bone fragments were too fragmented for visual identification.
Consequently, researchers analyzed proteins and DNA extracted from these fragments to ascertain their origins. Their investigation led to the discovery of 13 bone fragments dating from approximately 44,000 to 47,500 years ago.