Human fossil discovery upends history of Palaeolithic Europe

A surprise discovery of human remains in a German cave has “fundamentally changed” the story of our species’ migration into Europe.

It suggests that Homo sapiens likely made it to Northern Europe 47,500 years ago, overlapping humans’ presence with Neanderthals.

The detailed analysis of stone tools from a re-excavated cave near the German village of Ranis, about 240km southwest of Berlin, was conducted by a large group led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Their findings were published today across three major research papers in the journal Nature.

Top-down view of archaeological scaffolding inside a cave
The excavation site inside Ilsenhöhle. Credit: Marcel Weiss CC BY-ND

In Ranis, the group excavated a local cave called ‘Ilsenhöhle’, which was the site of a previous excavation in the 1930s that located several artefacts dated to the Middle and early Upper Palaeolithic periods of northern Europe, around 43,000 years ago.

Discoveries from this period have been classified as part of the Lincombian-Ranisia-Jerzmanowician – ‘LRJ’ – considered an important transition period between the Middle and early Upper Palaeolithic periods in this part of central Germany. A notable characteristic of artefacts from this period is the appearance of ‘leaf points’ on blades used by the region’s occupants at the time.

The researchers hoped to uncover previously inaccessible LRJ rock layers and more detail on Ilsenhöhle-Ranis’ Neanderthal occupants by re-excavating the site. In doing so, they made an unexpected discovery.

“The challenge was to excavate the full 8m sequence from top to bottom, hoping that some [LRJ] deposits were left from the 1930s excavation. We were fortunate to find a 1.7m thick rock the previous excavators did not get past,” says Marcel Weiss, an archaeologist based at FAU Erlangen.

“After removing that rock by hand, we finally uncovered the LRJ layers and even found human fossils.

“This came as a huge surprise, as no human fossils were known from the LRJ before, and was a reward for the hard work at the site.”

Human bone fragment ranis tim schuler tlda cc by nd

Human fossil discovery upends previous assumptions about Germany’s Palaeolithic inhabitants

Until now, the LRJ had been associated with Neanderthal occupation throughout the region, so the discovery of more of its remnants alongside human fossils points to Homo sapiens inhabiting central Germany at the same time.

“It turns out that stone artefacts that were thought to be produced by Neanderthals were in fact part of the early Homo sapiens tool kit,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, a professor in palaeoanthropology at Collège de France.

“This fundamentally changes our previous knowledge about this time period: Homo sapiens reached northwestern Europe long before Neanderthal disappearance in southwestern Europe.”

Those human fossils were unearthed among thousands of bone fragments.

And not just human bones either, but mammals that would have used Ilsenhöhle-Ranis for shelter as well.

A castle built atop a cave.
Ranis castle in Germany, above the entrance to the Credit: Tim Schüler, TLDA CC BY-ND

“The Ranis cave was used intermittently by denning hyaenas, hibernating cave bears, and small groups of humans,” says Geoff Smith, a zooarcheologist from the University of Kent, UK.

More bones were likely the remains of discarded game – food hunted by these early humans from the surrounding area that included reindeer, horses and woolly rhinoceros.

“While these humans only used the cave for short periods of time, they consumed meat from a range of animals, including reindeer, woolly rhinoceros, and horses” says Smith.

“Although the bones were broken into smaller pieces, they were exceptionally well preserved and allowed us to apply the latest cutting-edge methods from archaeological science, proteomics and genetics.”

From here, the researchers proceeded to apply their genetic testing to remains first obtained during the excavations and other DNA samples taken from sediment found at the site.

Doing so enabled them to confirm the presence of human DNA. Bones were then subject to radiocarbon dating to narrow the period they inhabited the caves. This placed the human occupation of Ilsenhöhle-Ranis at about 47,500 years ago.

It was likely that the cold climate these humans inhabited would have been like those conditions seen in present-day Scandinavia. “The results from the Ilsenhöhle in Ranis fundamentally change our ideas about the chronology and settlement history of Europe north of the Alps. It is especially exciting that we now have the oldest Homo sapiens here in Thuringia, Germany”, says Tim Schüler an archaeologist from the Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie.

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