A study published on 9 February in Science Advances argues that distinctive stone tools and a lone child’s tooth were left by Homo sapiens during a short stay, some 54,000 years ago — and not by Neanderthals, who lived in the rock shelter for thousands of years before and after that time.
The Homo sapiens occupation, which researchers estimate lasted for just a few decades, pre-dates the previous earliest known evidence of the species in Europe by around 10,000 years.
But some researchers are not so sure that the stone tools or tooth were left by Homo sapiens. “I find the evidence less than convincing,” says William Banks, a palaeolithic archaeologist at the French national research agency CNRS and the University of Bordeaux.Ewen Callaway, “Evidence of Europe’s first Homo sapiens found in French cave” at Nature (February 9, 2022)
The paper is open access.
Here’s the story (in French):
Team co-leader Ludovic Slimak and colleagues offers some thoughts at The Conversation:
Human origins researchers have generally agreed that between 300,000 and 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals and their ancestors occupied Europe. From time to time during that period, they had contact with modern humans in the Levant and parts of Asia. Then around 48,000 to 45,000 years ago, modern humans – essentially us – expanded throughout the rest of the world, and Neanderthals and all other archaic humans disappeared…
The first curious finding to emerge during the initial decade of Grotte Mandrin excavations were 1,500 tiny triangular stone points identified in what we labeled Layer E. Some less than half an inch (1 cm) in length, these points resemble arrowheads. They have no technological precursors or successors in the 11 surrounding archaeological layers of Neanderthal artifacts in the cave.
Who made them? A handful of other sites in the middle Rhône Valley also contain these tiny points. But those sites were excavated long ago with pickaxes, making it hard to tell whether the points showed up abruptly or gradually over time, perhaps with Neanderthals having developed the methods to make them. In 2004, one of us, Ludovic Slimak, named this distinctive tradition “Neronian” after the nearby site where such tiny points were first excavated…
The final piece of the puzzle came in 2018, when one of us, Clément Zanolli, analyzed the nine hominin teeth we’d found throughout the different layers during excavation. Through painstaking analyses using CT scans and comparisons with hundreds of other fossils, we were able to determine that the Mandrin E tooth, a single baby tooth from a child between 2 and 6 years of age, came from an early modern human and cannot be from a Neanderthal.Ludovic Slimak et al., “New research suggests modern humans lived in Europe 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, in Neanderthal territories” at The Conversation (February 9, 2022)
Here’s the time line the researchers offer:
Someone should writer a Stone Age novel about a story like this. Apart from that, keep digging.