Modern Humans Made Failed Attempt to Colonize Europe 54,000 Years Ago

Homo sapiens remains found ‘sandwiched’ between layers of Neanderthal habitation in Rhone Valley cave push back the clock on earliest known arrival of modern humans in Europe by 10,000 years

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Modern Neronian technologies (about 20mm)
Modern Neronian technologies made only by sapiens, found in Grotte MandrinCredit: Ludovic Slimak
Ariel David
Ariel David

The story of human evolution and dispersal keeps getting more complicated. New finds at a cave in the Rhone Valley, in southern France, reveal that around 54,000 years ago, modern humans from the Middle East arrived and made a failed attempt to settle the continent. Moreover, they occupied a cave where Neanderthals had lived before – and would live after them.

Archaeologists digging at Mandrin Cave, near the city of Montelimar, have uncovered a layer of Homo sapiens remains, including artifacts and a human tooth, sandwiched between earlier and later signs of Neanderthal habitation. The distinctive sapiens vestiges were dated to between 57,000 and 52,000 years ago, some 10,000 years before the earliest known modern human sites in Europe, located in southern Italy and Bulgaria.

It was thought that, at the time of this newly discovered French incursion, 54,000 years ago, our ancestors had just barely left Africa, given that the oldest modern human remains known outside the continent were found at Manot Cave in northern Israel and date to around 55,000 years ago.

And yet, in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, researchers report that, roughly at the same time, there were already modern humans in Europe, making exactly the same advanced tools that Homo sapiens was using in the Levant.

This distinctive stone tool culture, dubbed the Initial Upper Paleolithic, is characterized by light and slender spear-points that could be mounted on javelins and projectiles. These long-range weapons gave modern humans a clear advantage over their Neanderthal cousins, who used heavier points and spears that had to be thrust directly, at great risk, into whatever beast was on the menu.

View of the Rhône river at the latitude of Grotte MandrinCredit: Ludovic Slimak
Modern humans were here: Neronian points. These standardized technologies have no equivalent among the Neanderthal groups before and after the arrival of the first modern humans in Grotte MandrinCredit: Laure Metz / Ludovic Slimak

An unusual sandwich

So you can imagine the surprise of the archaeologists at Mandrin when thousands of tools typical of the Initial Upper Paleolithic culture of the Levant turned up in the French cave between older and more recent layers of classic Neanderthal tools.

“It was definitely an anomaly in our archaeological sequence,” says Ludovic Slimak, an archaeologists with the University of Toulouse and France’s National Center for Scientific Research.

Further confirming that the cave was used by different kinds of hominins at different times was the discovery of nine teeth in the archaeological layers. Most belonged to Neanderthals, who lived at Mandrin as far back as 120,000 years ago. But one tooth, found in the same layer with those anomalous tools, had the anatomical features of a modern human and belonged to a child aged 2 to 6, Slimak and colleagues report.

“The tooth is just the icing on the cake: our conclusions are based on the thousands of artifacts that are exactly those from the Initial Upper Paleolithic in the Levant,” says Slimak, who has been digging at Mandrin for more than 20 years. “There is very rich archaeological material associated with this human tooth and it is very distinct from what is before, which is Neanderthal, and what is after, which is again Neanderthal.”

Dr Ludovic Slimak, director of the Grotte Mandrin archaeological projectCredit: Dr Laure Metz

Using a combination of radiocarbon dating, optically stimulated luminescence and thermoluminescence, Slimak’s team determined that the sandwiched human layer dates back to around 54,000 years ago.

Since there are no other known modern human sites from this period between the Levant and France, one question is how and why did these sapiens interlopers travel so far to settle in the Rhone Valley amidst the Neanderthals.

Show us the flint

The international team digging at Mandrin also developed a method that allowed them to estimate how long the modern humans stayed. By studying the layers of soot left by prehistoric fires (similarly to counting the rings of a tree) they calculated that the sapiens colony existed for about 40 years, no more.

“Given that we found a child’s tooth, this must have been a pretty large group – with men, women and children – and it looks like they were trying to establish a permanent colony,” Slimak tells Haaretz. “It’s an incursion that lasts the space of a human generation, and then the Neanderthals come back.”

View of the entrance of Grotte MandrinCredit: Ludovic Slimak
Grotte Mandrin hominin teeth from the ages. All teeth belong to Neanderthals except for layer E - which is from modern humans 54.000 years agoCredit: Dr Ludovic Slimak (CNRS UMR TRAC

There is no evidence of reciprocal cultural influences between sapiens and Neanderthal at Mandrin, or that the two species interbred as we know must have occurred in other contexts, because all modern humans carry around a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA.

There is however one indirect piece of evidence showing there was some contact between the two groups at Mandrin. While their technologies varied greatly, they used the same raw material to make their tools: flint. The researchers were able to trace the origin of the Neanderthal and sapiens flint and found that it came from the same deposits, in some cases almost 100 kilometers from Mandrin Cave.

“These flint sources are small and can be hard to find, you can’t just stroll in and find them,” Slimak says. “This suggests that when sapiens arrived they had some contacts with local Neanderthals, possibly using them as scouts to gain knowledge of the area.”

In ethnography, the use of locals as scouts is typical of pretty much any colonial project in history and there is no reason to think that our distant ancestors behaved much differently from Spanish conquistadors or European settlers, the archaeologist says.

This doesn’t tell us anything about whether the relationship between sapiens and Neanderthals was friendly or frosty, he adds, or whether it had a role in the failure of the settlement.

View of the excavation on the Neronian layer dated to 54.000 years oldCredit: Ludovic Slimak

“There must have been several attempts to colonize Europe, with this being one of the earliest, and many of them must have failed,” Slimak says. “Maybe they were not numerous enough. Maybe they were planning to mix with the Neanderthals, and they couldn’t either because they didn’t have good enough relations or because the fertility between the two was limited.”

Sailing on the briny in the Paleolithic?

The return of the Neanderthals was relatively short lived, in evolutionary terms. By 42,000 years ago modern humans were flooding Western Europe, and retook possession of Mandrin Cave, just as the last of the Neanderthals were going extinct.

As to why Mandrin might have been the focus of this early modern human incursion on the continent, Slimak notes that the Rhone is the second largest river of the Mediterranean, after the Nile, and its broad valley was the main migratory path for herds of large animals moving between northern and southern Europe.

So these early sapiens may have just been following their dinner. But still, France is a long way from the deserts of the Levant. How did those early pioneers migrate so far, without leaving traces of habitation in between?

A modern sapiens tool found in Grotte Mandrin from 54,000 years agoCredit: Ludovic Slimak

One possibility is that they moved along the coast, and any sites on the way have since been submerged by the sea, which was much lower during the Ice Age, Slimak says. But he also makes a second, surprising suggestion: perhaps they traveled by boat. After all, he notes, some researchers believe that modern humans reached Australia around 50,000 years ago (some think this occurred even earlier; others put the date quite a bit later).

In the case of Australia, there is little doubt that humans had to navigate across the water because there was no land bridge connecting this continent to southeast Asia, Slimak says. So, if Homo sapiens could build boats in the Far East at this time, why not do so in the Mediterranean?

Evolutionary salad

The discovery of the early sapiens presence at Mandrin makes sense when we look at what we know today about human evolution, says Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, a physical anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, who did not take part in the French study.

Until recently, it was thought that hominins pretty much stuck to their corners of the world: Neanderthals ruled over western Eurasia and most of the Middle East; Denisovans lived in East Asia and sapiens roamed the African savannah until around 70,000 years ago, when we suddenly began leaving our ancestral home and took over the globe.

A micropoint made by a Homo sapiens in Grotte Manchin 54,000 years agoCredit: Ludovic Slimak

But in recent years, DNA research and archaeological finds have shown that the reality of human evolution is much less linear. It appears that hominins constantly made forays into each other’s territories, migrating with ease over vast distances and often interbreeding with the local inhabitants.

Archaic homo sapiens, which evolved in Africa at least 300,000 years ago, already appeared in today’s Israel some 200,000 years ago, and possibly interbred with a Neanderthal ancestor there. Meanwhile Neanderthals and Denisovans were cozying up in the freezing caves of Siberia, and producing hybrid kids.

So in this ever more complex story of human evolution, it is not unusual to discover another early meeting point between two different hominins, Hershkovitz says. The fact that modern humans now seem to appear at the same time in the Levant and in France is more the result of the fact that our dating techniques for such distant periods still have huge margin of errors.

So while they appear contemporaneous, the Initial Upper Paleolithic sites in the Levant and in Mandrin may, in reality, easily be separated by one or two millennia, more than enough time for groups of highly mobile prehistoric hunter-gatherers to slowly migrate across a continent, he says. Hershkovitz is skeptical of the suggestion that such migrations might have occurred by sea, and says the most parsimonious explanation for the absence of contemporary sapiens sites between the Levant and Mandrin is that we simply haven’t discovered them yet.

“I’m sure we will eventually find sites from the same period in Italy, Greece and so on. We don’t need to imagine that they built boats,” he says. “Usually the simplest explanation is also the correct one.”

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