Researchers reported this week that they used ancient DNA to identify 13 skeletal remains of Homo sapiens in the Ilsenhöhle cave, located beneath a medieval hilltop castle in the German town of Ranis.
The age of the bones was determined to be 47,500 years. Until now, the oldest remains of Homo sapiens from the northern part of central and northwestern Europe were “only” about 40 thousand years old.
“These fragments are directly radiocarbon dated and have provided us with well-preserved Homo sapiens DNA,” paleoanthropologist and research leader Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Collège de France in Paris told Reuters.
Neanderthals and modern humans lived side by side and copied each other’s tools
Homo sapiens originated in Africa more than 300,000 years ago, later wandering around the world and meeting other human populations, including Neanderthals. Due to the incomplete fossil record, the details of how Homo sapiens spread across Europe and what role our species played in the extinction of the Neanderthals, who disappeared around 40,000 years ago, are not clear.
The area was colder than it is now
The research, which was presented in studies published in the journals Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution, showed that the area was colder then than it is today – a cold steppe tundra similar to present-day Siberia or Scandinavia. The research also showed how Homo sapiens, despite having roots in warmer Africa, adapted relatively quickly to freezing conditions.
The researchers concluded that the cave was used sporadically by small, mobile groups of hunters and gatherers who moved across a landscape full of Ice Age mammals, and that cave hyenas and cave bears inhabited it at other times.
“The site at Ranis was occupied during several short-term stays, and not as a huge encampment,” said archaeologist Marcel Weiss of the University of Erlangen in Germany, another of the leaders of the research.
According to scientists, larger noses are a sign of Neanderthal origin
Bones and stone artifacts from the cave showed that these people hunted large mammals including reindeer, horses, bison and woolly rhinoceros.
“It is interesting that the diet of both early Homo sapiens and late Neanderthals appears to have focused on large land game, which may have led to areas of mutual competition,” noted zooarchaeologist Geoff Smith of the University of Kent, who led one of the studies.
“However, we still need more data to better understand the role and influence of climate and incoming Homo sapiens groups on the eventual extinction of Neanderthals in Europe,” he added.
Findings also from the Czech Republic
The research appears to have settled the debate over who made a specific set of European stone artefacts – attributed to the so-called Lincombe-Rani-Jerzmanovic (LRJ) culture – including leaf-shaped stone blades used as spearheads for hunting. Many experts assumed that they were made by Neanderthals. The presence of the Homo sapiens species in Ranis without evidence of Neanderthals, on the other hand, suggests that it was Homo sapiens who made them.
“These blade tips have been found from Poland and the Czech Republic through Germany and Belgium to the British Isles, and we can now assume that they most likely represent an early presence of Homo sapiens throughout this northern region,” Smith said.
The oldest known Neanderthal engravings have been discovered in France
The researchers identified the bones based on mitochondrial DNA, which reflects maternal inheritance. More can be learned from nuclear DNA, which offers genetic information from both parents, including whether Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals at Ranis.
The cave was excavated in the 1930s, where bones and stone artefacts were found, before World War II interrupted the work. The technology at the time could not identify the bones. Between 2016 and 2022, scientists re-examined it and discovered additional bones and artifacts. DNA sequencing on the newly found and previously exposed bones has identified the remains of Homo sapiens.
“The results for Ranis are amazing,” Weiss said, adding that researchers should go back to other European sites from this period to see if they contain similar evidence of the presence of early Homo sapiens.