Sat. Sep 24th, 2022
These are the oldest Homo sapiens fossils ever found in Europe

A 46,000-year-old tooth and a handful of bone fragments are the oldest direct evidence of our species’ presence in Europe, a recent study reports. They lived and died during an important transition period, when our species and Neanderthals met and interacted — a period we don’t know much about at the moment. The data sheds some light on at least some of that eventful time.

us and them

The last trace of Neanderthals in Europe dates back to about 40,000 years ago. Anything much older than that is almost certainly a piece of Neanderthal culture and made by Neanderthals. Anything much younger than that must have been the work of our own species long after the last Neanderthals died out. But for a few thousand years, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared a continent.

We don’t know exactly how long our two species have coexisted, which is why Bacho Kiro Cave is so important. In sites with no hominin fossils, archaeologists must rely on the age of the artifacts if they want to draw conclusions about which species created them. But in Bacho Kiro, archaeologists found fragments of radiocarbon datable human bone mixed with stone tools and other artifacts. It is the Paleolithic version of a smoking gun.

Jean-Jacques Hublin (director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology), Helen Fewlass (also of MPI), and their colleagues say it means that certain methods of striking flint, types of stone tools, and pendants made from bear teeth belonged to the culture of the first members of our own species to settle in Europe, and not for Neanderthals.

“There are similarities in production techniques used by Homo sapiens in Bacho Kiro and Neanderthals elsewhere, making it clear that there was cultural transmission going on between the two groups,” said New York University anthropologist Sarah Bailey, a co-author of the study. We could have concluded that there were cultural trade-offs at the time. happened between our species and the Neanderthals, because that’s what happens when two groups of people meet: Locard’s exchange principle in big letters. But we still don’t know exactly who owns which ideas, technologies and ways of doing things. borrowed.

Bacho Kiro Cave answers some of those questions, but not all of them.

A Pleistocene smoking gun

The handful of bone fragments date from 46,790 to 42,810 years old. They were buried in a layer of rich, dark sediment, mixed with stone knives, leather-working tools, ivory beads and pendants, and the butchered bones of red deer and bison. Most stone tools were long flint blades and points made with a technique called retouching.

Similar stone tools, along with similar bear tooth pendants, have been found at sites across Eurasia from central Europe to present-day Turkey, dating to between 45,000 and 43,000 years ago. Archaeologists call the culture they represent “Initial Upper Paleolithic,” which is precise, but not very catchy. Because of its age, it was not clear whether the First Paleolithic was a Neanderthal culture or a Homo sapiens a.

But this time, the distinctive Initial Upper Paleolithic artifacts were unearthed from the same sedimentary layer as the people who — it’s reasonable to assume — made and used them. Except for the tooth, which was clearly a… Homo sapiens molar, the other bone fragments were too small and worn to identify visually, so paleoanthropologists had to take small samples from each piece and study the proteins that made up the bone.

“Most of the Pleistocene bones are so fragmented that you can’t visually tell which animal species they represent,” explains Frido Welker, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen and research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “However, the proteins differ slightly in their amino acid sequences from species to species.” The analysis found that the bones belonged to humans, but what kind of human? To refine it further, Hublin, Fewlass and their colleagues sequenced DNA from the tooth and bones. These turned out to be the fragmented remains of at least five members of our own species.

At first glance (if you allow for a brief pun), that evidence seems to spark the debate over whether Homo sapiens or Neanderthals first developed this toolkit and started wearing bear tooth pendants. After all, some bear tooth pendants at Bacho Kiro look a lot like those found at Neanderthal sites much further west, in France, dating back to the last centuries of the species’ existence.

Stone artifacts from the First Upper Paleolithic in the Bacho Kiro Cave.  1-3, 5-7: Pointed leaflets and fragments from Layer I;  4: Sandstone bead with morphology similar to bone beads;  8: The longest complete blade.
enlarge Stone artifacts from the First Upper Paleolithic in the Bacho Kiro Cave. 1-3, 5-7: Pointed leaflets and fragments from Layer I; 4: Sandstone bead with morphology similar to bone beads; 8: The longest complete blade.

Cultural transfer is a two-way street

“This confirms that” Homo sapiens were primarily responsible for these “modern” creations, and that similarities between this and other sites where Neanderthals made similar things are due to interaction between the populations,” Bailey said. In other words, Neanderthals simply copied from the more technologically advanced newcomers. And in the case of Initial Upper Paleolithic stone tools and pendants, that seems to be the case.

But culture is a big, complex thing, and when societies clash, it’s almost never true that one takes over the whole culture from the other. It may not always be an even exchange, but it almost always flows both ways. For example, Bacho Kiro’s tools included at least one possible Neanderthal invention: a bone tool called a lissoir, which was used to soften and prepare animal skins.

The oldest lissoir we know of comes from a 51,000-year-old site in France, where it was found near the skull of a Neanderthal child. There is no trace of Homo sapiens who once lived on the site called Peche-de-l’Aze I. And if so, the members of our genus who lived in Bacho Kiro a few thousand years later may have heard about lissoirs from their Neanderthal- neighbors. Around the same time, Neanderthals elsewhere in France were spinning plant fibers into twine 51,000 years ago, meaning they probably didn’t learn that from us.

Neanderthals painted horses and stencils by hand on the walls of the Maltravieso cave in western Spain at least 64,000 years ago; by the time our species arrived in the area 20,000 years later, the cave rock had already begun to pour down to cover the already ancient paintings. And as much as 114,000 years ago in Cueva de los Aviones, on Spain’s southeast coast, Neanderthals decorated seashells with red and yellow pigment and stringed them like beads or pendants. Those are the oldest known pieces of jewelry ever found, with a margin of about 20,000 to 40,000 years.

Waves before the flood

The deepest buried layer in Bacho Kiro Cave dates back to about 51,000 years ago, and the stone tools it contains are more typical of a culture that is definitely Neanderthal: sharpened flake tools, made by a machining method called Levallois, from relatively coarse-grained rock. that would have been available near the cave. The first human fossil dates back to about 46,000 years ago, and it appears next to the first of the long flint blades and bear teeth pendants.

It’s not the first suggestion that our species ventured into Europe earlier than 40,000 years ago; Homo sapiens elsewhere in the area, fossils have turned up in sediment layers between 45,000 and 43,000 years old. But at those sites, archaeologists dated other artifacts in the same layer, not the bones themselves. Bacho Kiro’s evidence is clearly more direct.

And Bacho Kiro suggests that our species had more time to interact with Neanderthals than we previously realized — a few thousand years longer. We’re not sure yet what that might tell us about the nature of those interactions, but Bacho Kiro offers some important hints for the bigger story. By showing that the awkwardly named initial Paleolithic culture belonged to our species, the site also tells us that about 45,000 to 43,000 years agoHomo sapiens had sort of gained a foothold from Central Europe to modern Turkey.

That means Neanderthals and our species probably interacted much earlier in eastern and central Europe than further west. And that probably explains why Neanderthals seem to have lasted so much longer in Western Europe than elsewhere.

But the Homo sapiens at Bacho Kiro may have been part of an early wave before the last flood of our species to Europe. “Pioneer groups brought new behaviors to Europe and interacted with local Neanderthals,” explains Hublin. “This early wave largely predates that which led to” [Neanderthals’] final extinction in Western Europe 8,000 years later.”

To be sure, as always, paleoanthropologists need more fossils and more data.

Nature2020 DOI: 10.1038/241559-020-1136-3 and 10.1038/s41586-020-2259-z (About DOIs).

By akfire1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.