Humans Reached Portugal 5,000 Years Earlier Than Thought

We may have overlapped with Neanderthals for thousands of years in the coastal caves of Western Europe, though that isn’t where our Neanderthal genes came from

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Aurignacian tools discovered in Lapa do Picareiro in central Portugal
Aurignacian tools discovered in Lapa do Picareiro are interpreted as meaning Homo sapiens was hereCredit: Jonathan Haws
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

We, the wonder that is modern humanity, evidently reached the balmy coasts of southern Portugal about 5,000 years earlier than had been thought, says a new report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

The Lapa do Picareiro cave is near the Atlantic coast in central Portugal. It had been occupied for around 50,000 years. The question is by whom. Now a new study of the stone tools found in that cavern indicates that it had originally been the stamping ground of Neanderthals who were supplanted by modern humans between 41,000 to 38,000 years ago, says the international team in PNAS.

If so, anatomically modern humans reached the westernmost parts of Europe at least 38,000 and possibly 41,000 years ago, reports an international research team from the Interdisciplinary Center for Archaeology and Evolution of Human Behavior (ICArEHB) in Faro, Portugal, with others.

That is about 5,000 years earlier than had been thought, explain the anthropologist Jonathan Haws at the University of Louisville and colleagues.

When a body met a body

The more we discover about human evolution, the steamier it looks. It seems the common ancestor of Homo sapiens-Neanderthal lived about 800,000 to 700,000 years ago in Africa. The ancestral Neanderthal reached Europe and generated the Neanderthal and Denisovan lines (while dying out in Africa), while our ancestor remained in Africa and evolved there. The Homo sapiens line proper seems to start about 500,000 years ago.

Every European and Asian alive today descended from sapiens who left Africa about 60,000 to 50,000 years ago – that part of the paradigm is still alive and kicking. But there were evidently earlier waves, or seeps, of Homo sapiens dispersing out of Africa much earlier. Bones found in Israel’s Misliya Cave and in Greece’s Apidima Cave date to around 200,000 years ago.

These discoveries of postulated early Homo sapiens remains outside Africa are not uncontroversial. The 210,000-year-old Apidima skulls are described by their finders as presenting “a mixture of modern human and primitive features.” Not all agree they should be associated with modern humans at all.

The Algarve region of Portugal, where Neanderthals and modern humans roamed, possibly together
The Algarve region of Portugal, where Neanderthals and modern humans roamed, possibly togetherCredit: Luc.T

Just to make the story more confusing, Neanderthal remains were found at Apidima from a later time; at Misliya too, researchers found a Neanderthal skull that was “only” 150,000 years old. Long story short – Neanderthals evolved in Europe and some of them migrated back to the Levant, and also, the early sapiens exiters from Africa went extinct.

However, the Aurignacian-style tools, associated uniquely with modern humans, found on the Portuguese coast from as much as 41,000 years ago may have belonged to humans whose line continues to this day. And to be sure, Neanderthals were around then in that area too, though their tools in Lapa do Picareiro cave were from about a thousand years earlier.

Even if Homo sapiens and Neanderthals didn’t meet in Picareiro, and they may have - they did meet, greet and heaven knows what else in Europe and definitely in the Levant.

Previous to this discovery, the oldest evidence for modern humans south of the Ebro River in Spain – far west in southern Europe – was found in Bajondillo, a cave on the Mediterranean coast. In 2019 a team reported that Homo sapiens had replaced Neanderthals in that cave, which is southern Spain, earlier than thought, about 44,000 years ago.

“Bajondillo offered tantalizing but controversial evidence that modern humans were in the area earlier than we thought,” Haws explains. “The evidence in our report definitely supports the Bajondillo implications for an early modern human arrival.”

Haws qualifies that modern human presence on the Atlantic coast of Portugal says nothing about how they got there, another heatedly debated issue.

Some believe modern humans clung to coastlines, eating of the fruits of the sea. However, sparse but striking evidence found in Saudi Arabia – a modern fingerbone 85,000 years old and more recently, 120,000-year-old footprints identified as having been made by Homo sapiens indicates that at least one route out of Africa was via the Horn of Africa, crossing the Arabian peninsula inland. Haws indeed suggests the Portuguese discovery could support migration inland, along east-west flowing rivers in the interior.

Other discoveries in Portugal’s Picareiro include thousands of animal bones with butchering and roasting marks. Somebody there seems to have had quite the appetite for barbecued whole rabbit. What’s more, some of the bones seem to have been shattered to access their marrow, a hominin practice going back hundreds of thousands of years, according to finds in Israel.

View of the excavation of the early modern human (foreground) and Neanderthal layers (background) of Lapa do Picareiro
View of the excavation of the early modern human (foreground) and Neanderthal layers (background) of Lapa do PicareiroCredit: Jonathan Haws

The dating of the early modern human and Neanderthal layers in said Portuguese cave – by dating the mauled animal bones – was handled by Sahra Talamo of the University of Bologna and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

As for the species identification by tool, the technologies of the different species/types of hominins can be undistinguishable: both made and used Mousterian-type tools, explains Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, who wasn’t involved in the research. But he agrees that Aurignacian technique is associated with modern Homo sapiens, not Neanderthals. By that logic, if Aurignacian tools were found there, then modern people were there.

Neanderthals: Stubborn, or strangers?

To put another topic to bed – plausibly the dying species of Neanderthals met with the burgeoning species of Homo sapiens in southern Europe as well, and maybe they mated there too. Maybe not in this specific cave: Strictly speaking, there’s no overlap there. The modern humans lived in Picareiro between 41,000 and 38,000 years ago, while the Neanderthal level peters out at between 45,000 and 42,000 years ago. (The team explains that the stone tools were not moved through post-depositional processes, always a worry at archaeological sites.)

But a nearby cave, Gruta de Oliveira , contains evidence of Neanderthals’ survival as late as 37,000 years ago, the team notes.

Ergo, it is plausible that the two Homo variants, sapiens and neanderthalis, overlapped for several thousand years in southwest Europe.

But were they kissing cousins? Are they the reason for Neanderthal genes in Eurasians, as suggested by team member Nuno Bicho of the University of Algarve, and/or for human DNA in Neanderthals?

They may have mated but at least, human DNA reached Neanderthals via Levantine populations, Hershkovitz avers: “This has already been shown by several genetic and anthropological studies.”

View of Lapa Do Picareiro looking in from the entrance
View of Lapa Do Picareiro, looking in from the entranceCredit: Jonathan Haws

Also arguing against intimate relations is the fact that despite the overlap in dates, Europe’s Neanderthals continued to use the same stone tools they had before modern types arrived with their fancy Aurignacian technology, the team says. Possibly they were stubborn. Possibly the two populations did not in fact meet and start schools of rock-knapping, etc.

“Differences between the stone tool assemblages dated before and after about 41,000 years ago are striking at Picareiro,” explains coauthor João Cascalheira. “Older levels are dominated by quartzite and quartz raw materials and marked by the presence of Levallois technology, a typical element of Neanderthal occupations in Europe. Aurignacian levels, on the other hand, are dominated by flint and the production of very small blades that were likely used as inserts in arrow shafts for hunting.”

Finally, the team relates to the paleo-environmental conditions, and reports that the human arrival corresponded with, or slightly predates, a bitterly cold and extremely dry phase.

Neanderthals are widely considered to have been cold-adapted, though there has been dissension suggesting the climes they lived in weren’t that cold. Also, a paper in 2019 points out that Neanderthals “were quite muscular” but even though they ate chiefly meat, “it is unlikely that they could maintain enough superficial body fat to offer much cold protection.”

But it’s also possible they were conservative and that the sapiens’ propensity for innovation, thinking outside the stone box and adventurism lie behind their triumph over every other Homo species everywhere. Possibly the snap change in conditions was a death knell for the Neanderthals, who had already become sparse and, it seems, fatally interbred. A 2019 study estimated that Neanderthals had 40% lower reproductive fitness than modern humans. Neanderthal populations already were small before the arrival of modern humans. “Even if they had been identical to modern humans in their cognitive, social and cultural traits, and even in the absence of inter-specific competition, Neanderthals faced a considerable risk of extinction” because of their tiny populations, that study postulated. It may not be that humans out-competed the Neanderthals over resources, as the mega-fauna died out and the weather turned fickle.

Happily, excavation of Picareiro isn’t yet complete and it could yet spring more surprises about the time Neanderthals and modern people shared the coasts of southern Spain and Portugal.

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