Four caves in rock wall

Bone of contention

People lived in Europe 10,000 years earlier than previously thought

“It was a great surprise to the team when a modern child’s tooth and stone tools, which in no way were associated with Neanderthals, were discovered in a soil layer dating back 54,000 years ago,” co-author of a recent study, Dr Martina Demuro from the University of Adelaide, said.

Previously it was believed the Neanderthals had the continent to themselves until 45,000-43,000 years ago.

Distinctive stone tools were found alongside Homo sapiens, in Grotte Mandrin — a cave in the Rhône Valley, not far from Marseille. Tools of this antiquity had only previously been seen before in Africa and the Levant. 

They were sandwiched in a layer containing earlier Neanderthal remains and one with later Neanderthal remains associated with the so-called Mousterian style of stone tools commonly found across Europe at the time.

The find indicates that modern humans and Neanderthals may have alternated occupation of the cave while co-existing in the same area over a long timeframe. While there is no evidence yet that they crossed paths in the cave, it does challenge the theory that modern humans simply replaced Neanderthals in Europe in one sudden event.

Homo sapiens emerged in Africa more than 300,000 years ago and the first early modern human remains have been found outside Africa in Israel at 194,000 to 177,000 years ago, in East Asia as early as 80,000 years ago, and in Australia from around 65,000 years ago.

“This study drastically changes our knowledge of when modern humans strayed into Europe,” says Dr Demuro.

Dating of the Grotte Mandrin artefacts was corroborated using multiple dating techniques, including single-grain dating of sediment performed at the University of Adelaide.