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Ancient Remnants from a French Cave Tell New Stories About Early Humans and Neanderthals

New findings published in Science Advances indicates that early humans landed in Europe at least 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

New archaeological findings in a French cave has opened a renewed understanding of modern humans and Neanderthals. The new findings were published in Science Advances on February 9. The discovery of an ancient molar (tooth) from Grotte Mandrin in the Rhone Valley in southern France and several stone tools revealed that they dated to around 54,000 years ago. This indicates that early humans landed in Europe at least 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The archaic tooth belonging to Home Sapiens was found sandwiched between remains of Neanderthals, indicating the possibility that both modern humans and the Neanderthals co-existed in that region thousands of years ago. The new findings also opened a challenge to the narrative that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the extinction of the Neanderthals. It is worth recalling that Neanderthals lived in Europe and parts of Asia for around 3,00,000 years before they disappeared 40,000 years ago.

Chris Stringer, professor and researcher at the Natural History Museum, London and who is also a co-author of the latest study, commented on the findings as, "We've often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals, but this new evidence suggests that both the appearance of modern humans in Europe and disappearance of Neanderthals is much more complex than that."

The new study was also the first one where archaeologists found evidence of groups of modern humans and Neanderthals that were alternating and lived in the same place. The study claims that they rotated rapidly and even abruptly for twice at least.

The previous evidence of the arrival of modern humans in Europe was found through archaeological excavations found in Bacho Kiro Cave of Bulgaria, which dated back to 45,000 years ago. The hypothesis that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the extinction of the Neanderthals was based on this time frame. It is pretty well known that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred among themselves, which is why we still carry some of the Neanderthal genes.

Along with the tooth molar, the stone tools excavated from the French cave led to the question of whether humans and Neanderthals used to hang out together in the Rhone valley. The researchers don't have any strict evidence that the two groups interacted in the region.

The excavated tools from the layers represented Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal occupations but are distinct in style and makeup. The distinct styles of the tools belonging to the two groups suggest that they don't show any sign of teaching one another about the tools' techniques, the researchers said. It was also found that the stone tools associated with humans were smaller than those associated with the Neanderthals.

The team also determined the period when the Neanderthals were relocating and the modern humans moved into the French cave. They found that the period was just a year and estimated this precisely by analysing and mapping the soot deposits found in the cave resulting from fires made by humans. "The soot is deposited to the roof of the rock shelter, and when there was a period of no one living there, there's no soot deposition," commented Chris Stringer.

Lead author of the study Ludovic Slimak commented on the research, " Right from the beginning of their occupation, Slimak said, the modern humans were using flint sourced from hundreds of kilometres away, the stone tools found in the cave show. That knowledge likely came from the indigenous Neanderthals. The territory appears to be immediately well known by Homo sapiens, and they immediately know flint sources that are very localised."

"What precisely was the interaction? We just don't know. We have no idea whether it was a good relationship or a bad relationship. Was it a group exchange, or did they have (Neanderthal) scouts to show and guide them?" Slimak further added.

The researchers dated the layers found at the site by using radiocarbon dating and luminescence techniques. The layers where the human tooth molar was found dated 56,800- 51,700 years ago. In other layers, the team found a total of eight teeth belonging to the Neanderthals.

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