– Despite the extreme cold: Man lived in Europe 45 thousand years ago
The new discoveries in Thuringia are among the oldest evidence of the presence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia. They paint a different picture of human settlement in Europe, and of coexistence with Neanderthals.
Despite the icy cold: Homo sapiens colonized central and northwestern Europe much earlier than previously known. Finds found at Ilsenhöhle in Thuringia show that modern humans lived there at least 45,000 years ago, and the temperature at that time was about 7 to 15 degrees cooler than it is today. This demonstrates the extent to which humans are able to adapt to extreme environmental conditions, writes an international research team led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. In addition, the three studies published in the journals Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution show that humans and Neanderthals coexisted in Europe for thousands of years – perhaps more than 10,000 years.
The finds made in the town of Ranes near Saalfeld undermine many of the assumptions of paleontologists. Until now, it was thought that modern humans only colonized Europe about 40,000 years ago, and only made sporadic appearances earlier. Some of the stone blades, sometimes running on both sides, are older and also appear in northwestern Europe, previously attributed to Neanderthals, who lived on the continent much earlier and disappeared about 40,000 years ago.
Who created the stone blades?
But in Elsen Cave, Hublin's team found bone remains next to so-called LRJ codes, the DNA of which clearly comes from Homo sapiens. Accordingly, the LRJ stone blades, which have been discovered in Great Britain and elsewhere, also belong to Homo sapiens.
“The site at Ranes provides evidence of the first dispersal of Homo sapiens into the northern latitudes of Europe,” said Hublin, honorary director of the Leipzig Max Planck Institute. “It is now certain that the stone tools thought to have been made by Neanderthals are definitely modern humans.”
Thousands of bone fragments
The Ilsenhöhle area, located directly below Rannes Castle, was extensively researched in the 1920s and 1930s. But during excavations after 2016, the team dug deeper and found thousands of shattered bone fragments under the cave's collapsed roof. Some clearly come from modern humans, others from animals.
“Archaeological zoological investigations show that the cave at Ranis was alternately used by hyenas, hibernating cave bears and small groups of people,” explained co-author Geoff Smith from England's University of Kent. “Although these people only used the cave for short periods, they ate meat from a range of animals, including reindeer, woolly rhinos and horses.”
Barren, rugged landscape
Isotope analyzes of horse teeth have shown that an extremely cold continental climate prevailed in the region, especially around 44,000 years ago. At that time the area resembled an open steppe like Siberia today. “Our results show that even these early groups of Homo sapiens, as they spread across Eurasia, were already able to adapt to such extreme climatic conditions,” said co-author Sarah Pederzani from the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “It was previously assumed that human resistance to cold climatic conditions did not appear until several thousand years later.” It is possible that people specifically moved to the cold region to hunt larger herds of animals.
Studies conducted at Mandarin Cave in the Rhone Valley in southern France have recently caused a stir. There, a research team found evidence of people as old as 54,000 years. This was met with hesitation by experts, but Hublin's team wrote: “If confirmed, it would lead to a complex mosaic picture of Europe, with groups of Neanderthals and humans from 55,000 to 45,000 years ago.”
It is unclear whether the early inhabitants of Elsenhulli lived permanently in Central Europe or whether they ventured north only seasonally, for example in the form of small mobile hunting parties. However, they left no trace in the genome of Europeans today. Eventually, the genetic lineage of these early humans became extinct.