Neronian points found at Grotte Mandrin in France (all images courtesy Ludovic Slimak)

A group of fossils and objects newly unearthed from the Grotte Mandrin rock shelter in southern France suggests humans settled in Europe much earlier than previously thought — approximately ten millennia earlier, apparently.

Archeological research previously dated the earliest known presence of Homo sapiens, modern humans, to about 45,000 years ago. But a team of scientists led by Ludovic Slimak of Toulouse University identified hominin traces in the Mandrin cave that show our species arrived in Europe between 51,700 and 56,800 years ago. And they were not alone.

According to the findings, published in the journal Science Advances last week, Homo sapiens shared the coveted shelter overlooking the Rhône River Valley in today’s France with their now-extinct relatives, the Neanderthals. The discovery challenges the long-held belief that modern and archaic humans did not encounter each other in the European continent.

Top to Bottom: pointed bone point with lateral notches, worked red deer canine, eagle talon with cutmarks, and pebble with an engraved line separating the rock in two subequal parts. (B) Details of the bone point showing working traces by a flint tool. (C) Red deer canine details showing traces of scrapping by a lithic tool. These marks may have been to deliberately extract the canine or to modify its morphology.

At the Mandrin cave, scientists uncovered thousands of flints, hard stones sharpened to be used as points or blades, from alternating layers of the excavation. About 1,500 extracted from one layer were particularly complex and of superior quality, suggesting they were made by modern humans. These objects were also standardized to the nearest millimeter, representing “a substantial technological difference” from the Mousterian stone tool industry associated with Neanderthals.

These tools along with fossils comprising nine dental specimens, one of which was identified as belonging to a Homo sapien, led the researchers to their conclusion that the two human species “replaced each other rapidly or even abruptly, at least twice, in the same territory.”

“The results from Grotte Mandrin presented here show that instead of recording a single event of population replacement as often argued elsewhere in Europe, a much more complex process of modern human appearance and Neanderthal disappearance appears to have occurred in Western Europe,” the authors write.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is Co-Editor of News at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...