A genetic analysis of bone fragments excavated from an archaeological site in central Germany provides conclusive evidence that modern humans – Homo sapiens – had reached northern Europe around 45,000 years ago. This dates their arrival thousands of years earlier than previously thought and shows that they co-existed with Neanderthals for several millennia before the latter went extinct.

The findings establish that the Ranis site in Germany, known for its finely crafted stone blades, is one of the oldest confirmed in central and northwest Europe belonging to modern human cultures of the Upper Paleolithic period.

DNA extracted from thirteen bone fragments showed they belonged to Homo sapiens with mitochondrial sequences matching those found elsewhere in Europe. Remarkably, several fragments shared the same maternal lineages, indicating they came from the same individual or close female relatives.

This genetic evidence supports previous discoveries that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis interbred occasionally as the two species interacted. It also lends weight to the idea that the migration of modern humans into Europe and Asia around 50,000 years ago contributed to the demise of Neanderthals, who had inhabited the region for over 500,000 years.

The Ranis cave provides evidence of the earliest dispersal of Homo sapiens into northern latitudes of Europe. Analysis of the archaeological, isotopic, genetic and dating evidence presents a picture of the paleoenvironment and human diet at that time.

Despite harsh tundra-like conditions, these pioneer Homo sapiens groups already had the ability to adapt—an earlier capability than previously thought.

By re-excavating Ranis using modern techniques and extracting mitochondrial DNA from bones, the team was able to rewrite the history of early settlements across northern Europe.

Their multi-disciplinary analysis sets a new timeline, showing Homo sapiens intermittently occupied the Ranis site from as early as 47,500 years ago and co-existed with Neanderthals for millennia, rather than arriving after their extinction as widely believed.

These groundbreaking findings rewrite our understanding of human migrations into higher latitudes during the Upper Paleolithic period.


Sources

University of California Berkeley | Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology | Mylopotamitaki, D., Weiss, M., Fewlass, H. et al. Homo sapiens reached the higher latitudes of Europe by 45,000 years ago. Nature (2024).doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06923-7 | Pederzani, S., Britton, K., Trost, M. et al. Stable isotopes show Homo sapiens dispersed into cold steppes 45,000 years ago at Ilsenhöhle in Ranis, Germany. Nat Ecol Evol (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41559-023-02318-z | Smith, G.M., Ruebens, K., Zavala, E.I. et al. The ecology, subsistence and diet of 45,000-year-old Homo sapiens at Ilsenhöhle in Ranis, Germany. Nat Ecol Evol (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41559-023-02303-6


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