For as long as people have been around, we have wondered where we came from. It is an innate curiosity that most of us share on some level. Whether it is wondering where our grandparents came from, their culture, and what language they speak. Or perhaps it is wondering which tribe an African American family belongs to.
We all wonder, and we all have the potential to explore and find out, to the best of our ability, answer these questions. But Paleoanthropology, the study of ancient humanity, is one of the fastest fields in STEM today. With new discoveries all the time, each adding new pieces, and sometimes even rewriting what we understand about our own evolution and development.
Most scientists agree that our species Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, 2-300,000 kya. The dispersal of our species is a series of events that are hard to explain and observe, but which leave traces to be discovered. Our species was not the first to leave Africa, that crown belongs to Homo erectus, one of our distant ancestors, who left Africa around 1.5 mya. They traveled into the Levant, Asia, and into South Asia. There is no evidence of them in Europe however, despite their large range.
What we do have in Europe however, and most abundantly, are the Neanderthals. Their ancestors, who we shared in common, lived around 800,000 kya. At some point near there, we diverged, and one part of us stayed in Africa, further developing on our own path there. The other portion of the population moved out of Africa, through the Middle East, into Asia, Europe, and across much of the wold world. They speciated a few times, we now know of Denisovans, H. Hiedelbergensis, Neanderthals, H. antecessor, and of course at the last stage, modern Humans.
The periods in which all of these migrations occurred is something that is highly contested and is a key focus point for many scientists who focus and specialize in radiocarbon dating, such as a friend of WOPA, Dr. Tom Higham who was involved with this study.
The importance of this new paper is not to show that humans migrated into Europe, we know that, but what is new is how long ago they did so. We can safely assume now that there was not a single “Out of Africa” event, a term that is often used incorrectly, as Dr. Chris Stringer prefers the term, Recent African Origins for this hypothesis on how humans populated the world.
The basic idea is that between about 60-90 kya AMH went on multiple migrations out of Africa and into various parts of Asia Europe Australia, and eventually even into the new world by 23 thousand years ago!
In a cave in Southern France, Grotte Mandrin, it has been discovered that modern-day humans, aka Homo sapiens sapiens, occupied this shelter as long as 56,800 years ago! This is about 10k years longer ago than was first believed. This paper is based on evidence of a tooth that was discovered in one of the deeper layers of the cave sediment.
The cave had an occupation of Neanderthals on and off for the last 100,000 years, but it has been known that modern humans occupied the cave from time to time as well. But we did not know they were here this early. The layer in which the tooth was found is believed to show the occupation of modern humans for about 40 years around 56,800 and 51,700 years ago. This is where the tooth from, and has easily been attributed to AMH. “This was not a short-term hunter-gatherer cam but a tentative colonization of Europe,” main author and director of excavations at the cave for the last 24 years; Ludovic Silmak of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurés in France, along with his colleagues.
This is important and implies a few key things. First of all, it shows that migrations out of Africa may be more complicated, and date back farther in history than we believed. And as mentioned in the study, this does not put a cap on how long ago modern humans were in Europe. This just shows what we know so far. But this does mean that Humans were around Neanderthals for a longer period than we once believed.
Being around Neanderthals for ten thousand years longer would have given us longer periods for admixture, allowing European humans, who may have migrated back into Africa, traces of Neanderthal DNA, however slight. But this would explain the 2-4% of Neanderthal DNA found in modern-day Europeans.
Another fascinating aspect of the study, that shows the importance of having a longer period with the Neanderthals, is that it appears there was a cross of technology or information on some level. The study details that flint tools were discovered among the sediment that came from within 100 km of the cave, but only an intimate knowledge of the landscape would have allowed for the harvesting of such resources, possibly suggesting that Neanderthals transferred this information to later modern humans who were living in the cave.