An ancient baby tooth found in a cave in France shows modern humans arrived in western Europe almost 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. The tooth, along with several tools found nearby, are an estimated 54,000 years old.
The team also uncovered a number of Neanderthal artifacts, including teeth, and stone tools that appear to have been used by modern humans, suggesting the two species existed in the same area around the same time. The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.
“This is really interesting and exciting,” Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved in the research, tells the New York Times' Sabrina Imbler in an email. “It shows the complexity of the modern human dispersal in the European continent and eventual replacement of Neanderthals.”
Archeologists have been excavating in the cave, called Grotte Mandrin, since the 1990s. So far, they’ve found 60,000 artifacts modified by humans, more than 70,000 animal remains and nine hominin teeth, per the study.
The human baby tooth was found in the same sediment layer as distinctive tools that were made using flint-knapping techniques scientists call Neronian, per NBC News’ Tom Metcalfe.
Modern humans crafted similar tools in Lebanon, suggesting the ones discovered in France are also from humans, says study author Ludovic Slimak, a paleoanthropologist French National Centre for Scientific Research, tells NBC.
“We've only got a single tooth at the moment, and it's a shame we don't know more about these people,” study author Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum, says in a museum statement. “But together with the completely distinct Neronian industry, it provides a persuasive scenario for modern humans in western Europe at this surprisingly early time.”
The cave appeared to be prime real estate for both humans and Neanderthals, and they occupied it alternately for thousands of years. Neanderthals inhabited Grotte Mandrin from more than 80,000 years ago until about 54,000 years ago, writes New Scientist’s Michael Marshall. The first human group appeared only about a year after Neanderthals left it, and stayed for only 40 years, per the publication. It’s unclear why the group left—or whether they simply died out.
Neanderthals then lived in the cave for 12,000 years, followed by another human settlement, per New Scientist.
“It’s not just one wave of modern humans arriving and colonizing all Europe, there are probably several attempts,” Clément Zanolli, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Bordeaux in France who is part of the excavation team, tells New Scientist. “What we have found… is probably one of those attempts, and there are probably other attempts that we did not find yet.”
Scientists have found no evidence that the Neanderthals and humans met in the area, though Zanolli tells New Scientist she thinks it’s “very likely” they did.
The new findings may change how scientists view the relationship between Neanderthals and humans.
“We’ve often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals,” Stringer tells Evening Standard’s Bill McLoughlin. “This finding demonstrates there is even more complexity for the arrival of modern humans in Europe than previously known.”