Despite the icy cold: Homo sapiens colonized central and northwestern Europe much earlier than previously known.
Finds from the Ilsenhöhle in Thuringia show that modern people lived there at least 45,000 years ago - back then it was around 7 to 15 degrees colder than today. This shows how well humans were able to adapt to harsh environmental conditions, writes an international research team led by Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. The three also appear in the specialist journals “Nature” and “Nature Ecology”.
The finds from the town of Ranis near Saalfeld undermine several paleontologists' assumptions. Until now, it was thought that modern humans only colonized Europe around 40,000 years ago and only appeared sporadically earlier. And certain stone blades, sometimes worked on both sides, which are older and also appeared in northwestern Europe, have previously been attributed to Neanderthals, who lived on the continent much earlier and disappeared around 40,000 years ago.
Who created the stone blades?
But in the Ilsen Cave, Hublin's team found bone remains next to these so-called LRJ blades, the DNA of which clearly comes from Homo sapiens. Accordingly, LRJ stone blades, which were discovered in Great Britain, among others, also go back to Homo sapiens.
"The site in Ranis provided evidence for the first spread of Homo sapiens into the northern latitudes of Europe," said Hublin, director emeritus of the Leipzig Max Planck Institute. "It is now certain that stone implements thought to have been made by Neanderthals were definitely made by modern humans."
Thousands of bone fragments
The Ilsenhöhle, located directly below Ranis Castle, was extensively researched in the 1920s and 1930s. But during excavations after 2016, the team dug deeper - and discovered thousands of shattered bone fragments under the collapsed cave roof. Some of them clearly come from modern humans, others from animals.
"Archaeozoological research shows that the Ranis cave was alternately used by hyenas, hibernating cave bears and small groups of humans," said co-author Geoff Smith from the University of Kent in England. "Although these people only used the cave for short periods of time, they consumed meat from a range of animals, including reindeer, woolly rhinoceros and horses."
Rough, barren landscapes
Isotope analyzes of horse teeth showed that a very cold continental climate prevailed in the region, particularly around 44,000 years ago. At that time the area resembled an open steppe like today's Siberia. "Our results show that even these early Homo sapiens groups, as they spread across Eurasia, were already able to adapt to such harsh climatic conditions," said co-author Sarah Pederzani from the University of La Laguna in Tenerife . "It was previously assumed that human resistance to cold climate conditions only emerged several thousand years later." It is possible that people even specifically moved to the cold region to hunt larger herds of animals.
Studies from the Mandrin cave in the Rhone Valley in southern France recently caused a stir. A research team there had found evidence of people who were 54,000 years old. Although this was met with reluctance among experts, Hublin's team writes: "If confirmed, this would result in a complex mosaic picture for Europe, with groups of Neanderthals and humans as early as 55,000 to 45,000 years ago."
It is unclear whether the early inhabitants of the Ilsenhöhle lived permanently in Central Europe or only ventured north seasonally, for example in the form of small mobile hunting parties. Be that as it may, they did not leave any traces in the genetic makeup of today's Europeans. The genetic lineage of these early humans eventually died out.