Stone tools indicate modern humans migrated to Europe in three waves

Comparing tens of thousands of Palaeolithic-aged stone tools from Lebanon and France has revealed that modern humans spread across Europe in three waves.

Stone tools were analysed from two sites: Ksar Akil in Lebanon and Grotte Mandrin in southern France.

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The French site has been the scene of archaeological excavations since 1990. Last year, a team of researchers determined that modern human fossils from the Mandrin cave indicate Homo sapiens first spread into the Neanderthal-dominated European continent between 51,700 and 56,800 years ago. That is, apart from one “possible sporadic pulse” more than 200 thousand years ago suggested by the discovery in 2019 of modern human features on a skull found in Greece in the 1970s.

That modern humans spread across Europe about 54,000 years ago pushes back Homo sapiens’ arrival into the continent more than 10,000 years and researchers now believe that archaeological evidence from this later period represents the final phase of modern humans’ entry into the continent.

“The study shows that this first Sapiens’ migration would actually be the last of three major migratory waves to the continent, profoundly rewriting what was thought to be known about the origin of Sapiens in Europe,” says archaeologist Ludovic Slimak of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and University of Toulouse III, France.

Modern humans first appeared in Africa around 300,000 years ago. It is believed that our species’ spread to Europe and Asia occurred via the Levant – the area between the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia which centres around today’s Middle Eastern countries of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Slimak’s team analysed the technological connections between the tens of thousands of stone tools from southern France and Lebanon.

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These trans-Mediterranean links pointed to three distinct phases in both regions between 54,000 and 42,000 years ago. That this sequence appears in both sites supports the idea that there were three waves of modern human migration into Europe.

The researchers say that further examination of these apparent patterns will help establish a clearer picture of the events that saw Homo sapiens spread across Europe, eventually replacing our close human cousins, the Neanderthals.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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