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Neanderthals and humans lived side-by-side and interbred 45,000 years ago

A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley, provides conclusive evidence that modern humans, Home sapiens, coexisted in the same region with Neanderthals for thousands of years.

Bone fragments excavated from a site near Ranis, Germany, prove that modern humans, Homo sapiens, had reached Northern Europe approximately 45,000 years ago.

This period significantly overlaps with the era of Neanderthals, suggesting a coexistence that lasted several millennia before the latter’s extinction.

In addition, during this period, Neanderthals and humans interbred, as evidenced by Neanderthal DNA found in the modern human genome.

Significant discovery in Ranis, Germany

The Ranis site, renowned for its intricate leaf-shaped stone tool blades, now stands as one of the oldest confirmed locations of modern human Stone Age culture in north central and northwestern Europe.

This discovery aligns with genomic evidence indicating occasional interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis.

It also supports theories that the arrival of modern humans in Europe and Asia, about 50,000 years ago, may have contributed to the Neanderthals‘ decline after over 500,000 years of dominance in the region.

Detailed in a trio of papers published today in Nature and Nature Ecology and Evolution, this discovery was made possible through a combination of genetic, archaeological, isotopic analyses, and radiocarbon dating at the Ranis site.

Stone blade tools redefine Stone Age Europe

These studies have shed new light on the age-old question of who crafted the leaf-point stone blades found there.

Until now, it was unclear whether these tools, part of the Lincombian–Ranisian–Jerzmanowician (LRJ) culture or technocomplex, were the work of Neanderthals or Homo sapiens.

Elena Zavala, a Miller Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the first authors of the Nature paper, clarifies the discovery, saying, “The new findings demonstrate that Homo sapiens made this technology, and that Homo sapiens were this far north at this time period, which is 45,000 years ago. So these are among the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe.”

Zavala began this pivotal work in 2018 as a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (MPI-EVA), under the leadership of Jean-Jacque Hublin, the institute’s former director and a professor at the Collège de France in Paris.

“The Ranis cave site provides evidence for the first dispersal of Homo sapiens across the higher latitudes of Europe. It turns out that stone artifacts that were thought to be produced by Neanderthals were, in fact, part of the early Homo sapiens toolkit,” Hublin said.

“This fundamentally changes our previous knowledge about the period: Homo sapiens reached northwestern Europe long before Neanderthal disappearance in southwestern Europe.”

DNA belonged to humans, not Neanderthals

Interestingly, the genetic analysis conducted by Zavala focused on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is solely inherited from the mother.

This analysis spanned bone fragments from both new and deeper excavations at Ranis, conducted between 2016 and 2022, and those from earlier excavations in the 1930s.

“We confirmed that the skeletal fragments belonged to Homo sapiens. Interestingly, several fragments shared the same mitochondrial DNA sequences — even fragments from different excavations,” Zalala explains.

“This indicates that the fragments belonged to the same individual or their maternal relatives, linking these new finds with the ones from decades ago.”

This link between the new and old finds is a remarkable testament to the continuity of the human lineage over millennia.

Unraveling millennia-old mysteries

Dorothea Mylopotamitaki, another first author and a doctoral student at the Collège de France, initially identified the fragments as human through paleoproteomics, the analysis of ancient bone proteins.

This preliminary identification set the stage for the subsequent DNA analyses.

By comparing mtDNA sequences from Ranis with those from other Paleolithic sites in Europe, Zavala constructed a family tree of early Homo sapiens across the continent.

Most of the Ranis fragments resembled mtDNA from a 43,000-year-old woman’s skull found in the Czech Republic, while one fragment was more akin to an individual from Italy.

“That raises some questions: Was this a single population? What could be the relationship here?” Zavala notes.

“But with mitochondrial DNA, that’s only one side of the history. It’s only the maternal side. We would need to have nuclear DNA to be able to start looking into this.”

New insights into Homo sapiens and Neanderthals

Zavala’s meticulous examination of sediment from various levels at the Ranis excavation site revealed DNA from an array of mammals but notably no hominid DNA.

Her combined analysis, including morphological, isotopic, and proteomic studies of bone fragments, offers a vivid depiction of the environmental and dietary patterns of both humans and animals that inhabited the cave over thousands of years.

Remarkably, the discovery of bones from reindeer, cave bear, woolly rhinoceros, and horses suggests that the area experienced cold climatic conditions akin to modern Siberia and northern Scandinavia.

This finding points to a human diet predominantly based on large terrestrial animals. The research team concluded that the cave served primarily as a shelter for hibernating cave bears and denning hyenas, with humans occupying it only occasionally, but no trace of Neanderthals.

Early human resilience to harsh climates

One of the papers posits that the sparse archaeological evidence at the Ranis site, among others, indicates short, expedient visits by small, nomadic groups of early Homo sapiens.

“This shows that even these earlier groups of Homo sapiens dispersing across Eurasia already had some capacity to adapt to such harsh climatic conditions,” said Sarah Pederzani, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of La Laguna in Spain, who led the paleoclimate study of the site.

“Until recently, it was thought that resilience to cold-climate conditions did not appear until several thousand years later, so this is a fascinating and surprising result.”

This finding is particularly intriguing as it challenges the previously held belief that resilience to cold climates in Homo sapiens emerged much later.

Rediscovering Ilsenhöhle: A journey through time

The Ilsenhöhle site, nestled at the base of a castle, was initially excavated between 1932 and 1938. The leaf points discovered there were initially attributed to either the final years of the Middle Paleolithic period (about 300,000 to 30,000 years ago) or the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic (beginning around 50,000 years ago).

Recognizing the site’s significance in understanding the transition from the late Middle Paleolithic to the modern human Upper Paleolithic in central Europe, Jean-Jacque Hublin and his team embarked on a reexcavation using modern archaeological tools.

This extensive excavation, reaching 8 meters below the surface, unearthed flint tool chips and a quartzite flake consistent with the LRJ technocomplex.

Secrets of early humans and Neanderthals unraveled

Proteomic analysis of bone chips recovered both in the recent and the 1930s excavations confirmed the presence of hominid remains.

Zavala’s DNA analysis conclusively identified all 13 bone fragments as belonging to Homo sapiens.

Moreover, the team’s radiocarbon dating of human and animal bones from various layers of the site has been instrumental in reconstructing the site’s chronology.

Helen Fewlass, a former Max Planck researcher, emphasized the coherence between the radiocarbon dates of Homo sapiens bones from both excavation collections and those from the LRJ layers.

“We found very good agreement between the radiocarbon dates from the Homo sapiens bones from both excavation collections and with modified animal bones from the LRJ layers of the new excavation, making a very strong link between the human remains and LRJ. The evidence suggests that Homo sapiens were sporadically occupying the site from as early as 47,500 years ago,” Fewlass explained.

Tim Schüler of the Thuringian State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and Archaeology in Weimar, Germany, added, “The results from the Ilsenhöhle in Ranis fundamentally changed our ideas about the chronology and settlement history of Europe north of the Alps.”

Tracing the steps of our ancestors

In summary, this important study has confirmed that modern humans, Homo sapiens, coexisted with Neanderthals for thousands of years.

The scientists’ conclusion is based on the analysis of bone fragments found near Ranis, Germany, which indicate that Homo sapiens arrived in Northern Europe around 45,000 years ago.

This timeline suggests a significant period of overlap with Neanderthals, lasting several millennia before the Neanderthals eventually became extinct.

In addition, through meticulous DNA analysis and modern archaeological techniques, researchers have unveiled evidence that challenges previous notions about human adaptation to harsh climates and the timeline of human settlement in Europe.

The tireless work of these scientists has enriched our understanding of human evolution, while exemplifying the importance of integrating various scientific disciplines to unravel the complex narrative of our ancestry.

The full study was published in the journal Nature.


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