Homo sapiens associated with the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician culture were present in central and northwestern Europe long before the extinction of Neanderthals in southwestern Europe, according to a trio of papers published in the journal Nature and the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. The evidence that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals lived side by side is consistent with genomic evidence that the two species occasionally interbred. It also feeds the suspicion that the invasion of Europe and Asia by modern humans some 50,000 years ago helped drive Neanderthals to extinction.
The Paleolithic Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician (LRJ) culture or technocomplex extends across northwestern and central Europe.
The Ranis cave site in the Orla River valley, Thuringia, Germany, is one of the eponymous LRJ sites based on its unique composition of bifacial and unifacial points.
Because of previous dating, the site was known to be 40,000 years old or older, but without recognizable bones to indicate who made the tools, it was unclear whether they were the product of Neanderthals or Homo sapiens.
“The new findings demonstrate that Homo sapiens made this technology, and that Homo sapiens were this far north at this time period, which is 45,000 years ago,” said Dr. Elena Zavala, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
“So these are among the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe.”
“The Ranis cave site provides evidence for the first dispersal of Homo sapiens across the higher latitudes of Europe,” said Professor Jean-Jacque Hublin, a researcher at the Collège de France.
“It turns out that stone artifacts that were thought to be produced by Neanderthals were, in fact, part of the early Homo sapiens toolkit.”
“This fundamentally changes our previous knowledge about the period: Homo sapiens reached northwestern Europe long before Neanderthal disappearance in southwestern Europe.”
The scientists conducted the genetic analysis of hominid bone fragments from the new and deeper excavations at Ranis between 2016 and 2022 and from earlier excavations in the 1930s.
Because the DNA in ancient bones is highly fragmented, she employed special techniques to isolate and sequence the DNA, all of it mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that is inherited solely from the mother.
“We confirmed that the skeletal fragments belonged to Homo sapiens. Interestingly, several fragments shared the same mitochondrial DNA sequences — even fragments from different excavations,” Dr. Zavala said.
“This indicates that the fragments belonged to the same individual or their maternal relatives, linking these new finds with the ones from decades ago.”
The bone fragments were initially identified as human through analysis of bone proteins — a field called paleoproteomics.
By comparing the Ranis mtDNA sequences with mtDNA obtained from human remains at other Paleolithic sites in Europe, the authors were able to construct a family tree of early Homo sapiens across Europe.
All but one of the 13 Ranis fragments were quite similar to one another and, surprisingly, resembled mtDNA from the 43,000-year-old skull of a woman discovered in a cave at Zlatý kůň in the Czech Republic. The lone standout grouped with an individual from Italy.
“That raises some questions: Was this a single population? What could be the relationship here?” Dr. Zavala said.
“But with mtDNA, that’s only one side of the history. It’s only the maternal side. We would need to have nuclear DNA to be able to start looking into this.”
The team also found that the Ranis cave was used primarily by hibernating cave bears and denning hyenas, with only periodic human presence.
This lower-density archaeological signature matched other LRJ sites and is best explained by expedient visits of short duration by small, mobile groups of pioneer Homo sapiens.
“This shows that even these earlier groups of Homo sapiens dispersing across Eurasia already had some capacity to adapt to such harsh climatic conditions,” said Dr. Sarah Pederzani, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of La Laguna.
“Until recently, it was thought that resilience to cold-climate conditions did not appear until several thousand years later, so this is a fascinating and surprising result.”
The team also carried out radiocarbon dating of human and animal bones from different layers of the site to reconstruct the site’s chronology, focusing on bones with traces of human modifications on their surfaces, which links their dates to human presence in the cave.
“We found very good agreement between the radiocarbon dates from the Homo sapiens bones from both excavation collections and with modified animal bones from the LRJ layers of the new excavation, making a very strong link between the human remains and LRJ,” said Dr. Helen Fewlass, a postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Institute.
“The evidence suggests that Homo sapiens were sporadically occupying the site from as early as 47,500 years ago.”