Humans and Neanderthals could have lived together even earlier than we thought

A provocative new study suggests that Homo sapiens moved into Europe in three waves.
A rock called Grotte Mandrin with a mountain in Mediterranean France. The cave records some of the earliest migrations of Homo Sapiens in Europe.

Grotte Mandrin (the rock in the center) in Mediterranean France records some of the earliest migrations of Homo Sapiens in Europe. Ludovic Slimak, CC-BY 4.0

A broken molar and some sophisticated stone pointed tools suggest that Europe’s first known humans may have been living on the continent 54,000 years ago. The findings are detailed in a study published May 3 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE and suggests that the first modern humans spread across the European continent during three waves in the Paleolithic Era

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Homo sapiens arose in Africa over 300,000 years ago and anatomically modern humans are thought to have emerged about 195,000 years ago. Previously, it was believed that modern humans moved into Europe from Africa roughly 42,000 years ago, leaving the archaeological record of Paleolithic Europe withs many open questions about how modern humans arrived in the region and how they interacted with the resident Neanderthal populations. The 2022 discovery of a tooth in France’s Grotte Mandrin cave in the Rhône Valley suggested that modern humans were there about 54,000 years ago, about 10,000 years earlier than scientists previously believed. 

“Until 2022, it was believed that Homo sapiens had reached Europe between the 42nd and 45th millennium. The study shows that this first Sapiens migration would actually be the last of three major migratory waves to the continent, profoundly rewriting what was thought to be known about the origin of Sapiens in Europe,” study co-author Ludovic Slimak, an archeologist at and University of Toulouse in France, said in a statement

The newly analyzed stone tools from this study have further upended that timeline. They suggest that the three waves of migration occurred between 54,000 and 42,000 years ago. The team of researchers compared records of stone tool technology across western Eurasia to document the order of early human activity across the continents. It focused on tens of thousands of stone tools from Ksar Akil in Lebanon and France’s Grotte Mandrin (where the tooth was found) and analyzed their precise technical connections with the earliest modern technologies in the continent. 

The technology of the tools went through three similar phases in each region, Slimak said, so they may have spread from the Near East to Europe during these three distinct waves of migration. The study suggests Neanderthals only began to fade into extinction in the third wave–about 45,000 to 42,000 years ago. 

[Related: Archery may have helped humans gain leverage over Neanderthals.]

The team also looked at a group of stone artifacts that were previously found in the eastern Mediterranean region called the Levant, or what includes today’s Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Slimak compared the tools from Grotte Mandrin to the ones from Ksar Akil in Lebanon, noting similarities between them. The artifacts from a group of stone tools known as the Châtelperronian resemble the modern human artifacts seen in the Early Upper Paleolithic of the Levant. The Châtelperronian items date to about 45,000 years ago and scientists had often thought Châtelperronians were Neanderthals.

“Châtelperronian culture, one of the first modern traditions in western Europe and since then attributed to Neanderthals, should in fact signal the second wave of Homo sapiens migration in Europe, impacting deeply our understanding of the cultural organization of the last Neanderthals,” said Slimak.

The moving of these technologies allow for a provocative new reinterpretation of human arrival into Europe and how it is related to the Levant region. Future studies of these phases of human migration will help paint a clearer picture of the sequence of events when Homo sapiens spread,   and gradually replaced Neanderthals.