It was not so long ago that archeologists believed Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans (Homo sapiens) never crossed paths. Those beliefs were shattered recently when genetic scientists found that many modern humans have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, which means that the time periods of the species overlapped – and it’s obvious they did some overlapping of the physical kind. Now comes a discovery in a cave in France -- a child's tooth and stone tools – which prove humans and Neanderthals lived together on ‘friendly’ terms for longer than once thought … and those humans arrived in Europe 12,000 years earlier than first thought. Shouldn’t MORE of us have Neanderthal DNA?
“The first curious finding to emerge during the initial decade of Grotte Mandrin excavations were 1,500 tiny triangular stone points identified in what we labeled Layer E.”
In Science Advances, Ludovic Slimak, a cultural anthropologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Toulouse’s Jean Jaurès, describes what he and his team found during decades of digging at Grotte Mandrin, an archeological site in southern France overlooking the Rhône River Valley. In a cave, they uncovered stone points which looked nothing like those made by Neanderthals … even though this cave had been long inhabited by Neanderthals 54,000 years ago. In a review of the study in The Conversation, Slimak explains he took the stone tips to the archeological site of Ksar Akil near Beirut, Lebanon, where modern humans were living 54,000 years ago and the strong resemblance indicated what was thought to be impossible – they were made by humans long before humans were thought to live in France.
“The final piece of the puzzle came in 2018, when one of us, Clément Zanolli, analyzed the nine hominin teeth we’d found throughout the different layers during excavation. Through painstaking analyses using CT scans and comparisons with hundreds of other fossils, we were able to determine that the Mandrin E tooth, a single baby tooth from a child between 2 and 6 years of age, came from an early modern human and cannot be from a Neanderthal.”
So, modern humans inhabited this Neanderthal cave 54,000 years ago – 12,000 years before it was believed homo sapiens arrived there. The obvious question is – did they live in this cave together? In an amazing feat of modern archeology, Slimak and the team studied smoke residue from fires that built up on the walls and ceiling and then fell onto the soil. The fires of humans and Neanderthals were different and the research showed humans took over the cave about a year after the Neanderthals moved out, lived there for about 40 years, then the humans moved out and the Neanderthals moved back in and stayed for a few thousand years until the humans came back. How did these humans arrive so early? Why did they leave? What happened to the DNA-swapping?
"We don't know if it was peacefully exchanges of partners. It might have been grabbing, you know, a female from another group. It might have been even adopting abandoned or lost Neanderthal babies who had been orphaned. All of those things could have happened. So we don't know the full story yet. But with more data and with more DNA, more discoveries, we will get closer to the truth about what really happened at the end of the Neanderthal era."
Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who was not part of the study, told the BBC that we really don’t know exactly how we acquired Neanderthal DNA – and how they undoubtedly acquired ours – but we probably survived because we were better organized. Caves like this one in southern France will help better paint the picture of the first contact, intermingling and eventual demise of the Neanderthals.
That picture will definitely be X-rated.