Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals Loved the Same Cave

Agence Science-Presse (www.sciencepresse.qc.ca)

This must have been prime real estate 54,000 years ago: Homo sapiens and Neanderthals alternated living in the same cave in the south of France. At one point, their residency was separated by only a year.

In other words, 54,000 years ago, after having been occupied for an undetermined amount of time by a group of Neanderthals, the Mandrin Cave (Grotte Mandrin) was occupied by our ancestors Homo sapiens just a year later – according to the very thin layer of soot covering the ground. These Homo sapiens stayed for about 40 years before leaving for reasons unknown, only to be replaced by Neanderthals for 12,000 years, then again by Homo sapiens for a few centuries.

Researchers support their argument of a first Homo sapiens occupation on the analysis of a baby tooth, as well as some “culturally” distinct stone tools found at the site.

By the way, if this is confirmed, it pushes back the earliest date that ancient Homo sapiens lived in Western Europe by 10,000 years.

If they did exist at that time there, it’s possible that these first Homo sapiens of 54,000 years ago were part of an unsuccessful attempt to colonize the region. At least, that’s what Clément Zanolli suggests in the New Scientist. Zanolli, of the University of Bordeaux, is one of the authors of a research paper published in Science Advances.

It is equally possible that these humans simply moved elsewhere. Nothing in the artefacts allows us to decide which conclusion is correct. On the other hand, the date of the “second” occupation of Homo sapiens, 12,000 years later, falls in the period during which we have found traces of them throughout Europe.

Now a baby tooth isn’t much to go on, say the study’s critics. But the stone tools found for this 40-year period seem to be of a style we traditionally attribute to Homo sapiens.

The Mandrin Cave is situated on a hill and looks out onto the Rhone River valley. It’s been the subject of archeological digs since the 1990s. Paleontologists have found 60,000 stone fragments and 70,000 animal remains there – and, most importantly, 9 hominid teeth from at least 7 individuals.

Nothing in the evolution of tools over these thousands of years would indicate any form of “cultural exchange” or “technology transfer”. Paleontologists working on other sights have suggested that Neanderthals may have started making their tools differently after contact with their cousins.

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