Modern Humans Reached West Coast of Europe 5,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Thought

View of Lapa do Picareiro looking in from the entrance. (Courtesy of Jonathan Haws)

(CN) — Roughly 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals near the Atlantic Coast of what is now central Portugal likely foraged for food, used stone tools and welcomed their new neighbors with some curiosity — modern humans.

A study published Monday says modern humans could have arrived on the westernmost part of the European continent about 5,000 years earlier than previously estimated.

This would have put them in the same region as the now-extinct Neanderthal about 41,000 to 38,000 years ago, according to findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By that time the Neanderthal occupation would have been gone. But evidence points to a possible overlap where the two groups existed in the same region around the same time.

Researchers say they found tools in Lapa Do Picareiro, a cave in central Portugal, which is host to one of the largest Paleolithic caches of bones. The study group was made up of an international team, including anthropology professor Jonathan Haws from the University of Louisville.

It takes a steep climb up a rocky and dusty mountain trail covered in aromatic herbs and shrubs with a view of mountains sprinkled with olive trees, wind turbines and small towns.

The findings in Portugal match those in the Bajondillo Cave located in Málaga, Spain, where other researchers came to a similar conclusion that modern humans replaced Neanderthals about 44,000 years ago.

Researchers have been excavating Lapa Do Picareiro for more than two decades and have been able to peel back a snapshot of human life from over the last 50,000 years.

“I’ve been excavating at Picareiro for 25 years and just when you start to think it might be done giving up its secrets, a new surprise gets unearthed,” Haws said in a statement. “Every few years something remarkable turns up and we keep digging.”

Tools and thousands of animal bones found in the cave prove hunting and cooking activities, according to the authors.

Professor Sahra Talamo from the University of Bologna, Italy, was able to date the bones with accelerator mass spectrometry to show cut marks to prove butchery and that the humans sought to extract marrow from animal bones.

The results show modern human arrival between 41,000 and 38,000 years ago, while the last Neanderthal habitation at the location would have been between 45,000 and 42,000 years ago.

There is some limited contribution of Neanderthal genes in present-day humans, but there’s no solid evidence that interbreeding took place in the Iberian Peninsula, Haws told Courthouse News. But that doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t exist.

The timing might seem off for the two groups, but a nearby cave, Oliveira, has evidence of Neanderthals’ existence until 37,000 years ago.

“If the two groups overlapped for some time in the highlands of Atlantic Portugal, they may have maintained contacts between each other and exchanged not only technology and tools, but also mates. This could possibly explain why many Europeans have Neanderthal genes,” said Interdisciplinary Center for Archaeology and Evolution of Human Behavior Director Nuno Bicho.

The cave has a well-preserved record of the climate from the Old Stone Age and researchers also found deer canine teeth, but there’s no clear indication that it was used for jewelry.

Michael Benedetti from the University of North Carolina Wilmington said the team studied the limestone rock fragments to get an approximate idea of the climate when the modern humans arrived at the cave site.

“Our analysis shows that the arrival of modern humans corresponds with, or slightly predates, a bitterly cold and extremely dry phase,” Benedetti said in a statement. “Harsh environmental conditions during this period posed challenges that both modern human and Neanderthal populations had to contend with.”

Haws told Courthouse News that the study’s findings show that these early, modern humans were successful at travel, adaptation to new terrain, climate and environments.

“They moved rapidly, in a geologic blink of an eye, across fairly diverse landscapes in Eurasia. It also suggests that Neanderthal populations were not dense enough to slow that process and were likely assimilated into modern human populations,” he said.

There remains more sediment to excavate at the cave site and that could provide new information about the modern human story.

“I think an important takeaway from this study is that we still know so little about our ancestors,” Haws said. “And that’s an exciting thing because it keeps the door open for new researchers to make future discoveries. This is part of an ongoing, long-term process of expanding our knowledge about human evolution through slow, methodical investigation in the field and the laboratory.”

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