Human bones found in a German cave have changed the timeline of ancient human history

Researchers have extracted ancient human bone fragments from the Ilsenhöhle cave in Ranis, Germany.Tim Schüler / TLDA

  • Human bones in a German cave put Homo Sapiens in Europe 7,500 years earlier than experts thought.

  • The results indicate that Homo sapiens lived close to Neanderthals for thousands of years, which is a new revelation.

  • Previously, scientists thought that Homo sapiens appeared around the time Neanderthals went extinct.

Researchers seeking to settle a long-running debate rewrote the timeline of ancient human history in the process.

For years, archaeologists have been arguing about an ancient culture with the elusive title: the Lincombian-Rainese-Jerzmanowician technocomplex. Even scientists know that’s a mouthful, so they call it the LRJ for short.

The LRJ is characterized by the creation of specific blades and leaf points, which share elements of both Neanderthal and Homo sapien craftsmanship.

Ancient stone flint against a black backgroundAncient stone flint against a black background

Newly excavated LRJ stone tools from Ranais.Josephine Schubert / Burg Ranis Museum

The debate over who made them is over, and the answer could help provide clues about what happened about 45,000 years ago — when Neanderthals, one of our closest human relatives, mysteriously went extinct on across Europe and Homo sapiens, in the end, prospered.

“The conventional wisdom was that they were made by late Neanderthals,” said study co-author Jean-Jacques Hullin, a professor of paleoanthropology at the Collège de France.

But Hublin and his colleagues wanted to settle the debate once and for all.

This led them to the Ilsenhöhle cave in Ranais, Germany, one of many sites across North West Europe where LRJ artefacts have been found.

The Ilsenhöhle cave was opened in Ranis, GermanyThe Ilsenhöhle cave was opened in Ranis, Germany

The Ilsenhöhle cave was opened in Ranis, Germany.Tim Schüler / TLDA

Rather than solving the mystery they were looking for, the researchers ended up discovering much more.

Mining ancient DNA

When they excavated the cave, the researchers uncovered more than just LRJ artifacts—they also found small bone fragments.

Most of the bones were too small to identify which animal they came from based on looks alone.

But thanks to a revealing new analysis called zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry, or ZooMS, the researchers were able to determine that 13 of the approximately 2,000 bone fragments they analyzed belonged to early humans.

A scientist loads a sample into an isotope ratio mass spectrometer.A scientist loads a sample into an isotope ratio mass spectrometer.

The researchers analyzed animal teeth found in Ranais to gain insight into the climate in which these animals lived.Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The next step was to determine which ancient human species they were from. If the team could figure that out, it would likely tell them who made the LRJ artifacts in the cave, solving the mystery, Hublin said.

To that end, they extracted DNA, which confirmed that the bones belong to Homo sapiens, providing strong evidence that they were responsible for the LRJ artefacts. “Vola!” Hublin said triumphantly.

But they weren’t done, yet.

A scientist uses a pipette behind a glass shield.A scientist uses a pipette behind a glass shield.

The researchers extracted protein from the bone fragments to analyze their DNA.Dorothea Mylopotamitaki

The team also used radiocarbon dating to date the bones, and were surprised by what they discovered.

According to their data, Homo sapiens was present in Ranis 47,500 years ago – thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Unlikely neighbors

Until this discovery, archaeologists believed that Homo sapiens did not arrive in Western Europe until 42,000 years ago, which contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Archaeological excavation shaftArchaeological excavation shaft

To reach the LRJ layer, the archaeologists entered an 8-meter-deep shaft below Ranais.Marcel Weiss

A growing library of evidence is pushing this timeline back further and further. Hublin and his team’s findings are the latest set of studies to add to the mounting pile.

The research was published in three papers in peer-reviewed journals nature and Nature Ecology and Evolution and paints a very different picture of history.

It suggests that small “pioneer” groups of Homo sapiens lived in Europe with Neanderthals for thousands of years before the species became extinct.

It is not clear whether these two groups ever interacted during that time.

“This is not at all the picture we had years ago of this wave of Homo sapiens moving into Europe and replacing the Neanderthals,” Hublin said. “What we see now is that it wasn’t a wave, it was different waves,”

Furthermore, the research suggests that these early Homo sapien “pioneers” were closer than we have given them credit for.

Hardcore people

Previous research has confirmed that Homo sapiens were only able to enter Europe during warmer times because they were adapted to the hot climate of Africa, where they came from.

But the specimens and artefacts found in Ranais indicate that they came in directly through the cold North West, and that this region was much colder than previously thought.

Analysis of animal teeth collected at the site showed the climate was 7 to 15 degrees Celsius cooler than it is today, similar to the climate in northern Scandinavia or parts of Siberia, Hublin said.

In addition, analysis of animal remains has shown that mammals were adapted to extreme cold in Ranais, including woolly mammals, reindeer and wolverines.

Left: animal bones against a black background.  Right: zooarchaeologist Geoff Smith examines one of these bones with a magnifying glass.Left: animal bones against a black background.  Right: zooarchaeologist Geoff Smith examines one of these bones with a magnifying glass.

Analysis of over 1,000 animal bones from Ranais showed that early Homo sapiens also processed the carcasses of deer and carnivores, including wolves.Geoff M. Smith

Questions remain about how Homo sapiens, who adapted to the warm weather, survived such a dramatic transition. But they probably made warm clothes from fur from these animals, explains study co-author Geoff Smith, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Kent.

Rewriting prehistory

Together, these findings paint a picture of human prehistory that is very different from what we have experienced before. But there are still questions to be answered.

The researchers have no plans to excavate Ranis any further, and the cave is closed for safety reasons. But they will continue to study the specimens and artifacts from this last dig to dive deeper into interactions between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals during this time.

“I think we have more to gain,” Hublin said. “The next thing is to understand what was going on among the late Neanderthals. How much did these new people get into them? What kind of interactions do they have with them? But I think solving the LRJ story is a great step.”

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