New discoveries show early humans lived in the frigid north alongside Neanderthals

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Weirds and quarks5:37 p.m.Understanding when (before) and how (intelligently) Stone Age people lived in Europe

Several recent discoveries unveiled this week shed light on the lives of ancient humans, as well as their inventiveness and resilience as they initially spread across the world.

First, three articles published in the journal Nature describe the discovery of human bones in a cave near Ranis in northern Germany. A detailed analysis of the cave’s bones and sediment suggests humans were there as early as 45,000 years ago, surprising archaeologists who previously thought humans were confined to warmer climates at the time.

“This really goes against the established model that humans were able to spread into new habitats,” says Sarah Pederzani of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “So this is really interesting because it shows that they were already much more adaptable than we initially thought.”

In another cave in southwest Germany, archaeologists discovered an ivory tool that they believe was used by ancient humans to spin rope more than 35,000 years ago. The discovery was described in the journal Science.

Four views of a flat piece of mammoth ivory, pierced with three holes.
This tool, made from ivory from a mammoth tusk, would have been used to make ropes. It was found in the Hohle Fels cave in southwest Germany. (Conard et al, Sci. Adv. 10, eadh5217, 2024)

This discovery is particularly interesting since most of what we know about our ancestors comes from stone tools, since softer materials like fibers rarely survive thousands of years of degradation. But for Nicolas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, it makes sense that ancient humans needed ropes in their daily lives.

“It’s interesting when you think about the important technologies that have been invented over time. A lot of people talk about the wheel, but the rope really lasted a long time,” said Conard, who is part of the team at the origin of the discovery.

“They need reliable technology, just like we need reliable technology, and that’s why we thought things like this had to exist.”

Humans living in the ‘surprisingly cold’ north

Ranis Cave was chosen because a previous excavation had uncovered stone tools dating from the time when our ancestors, Homo sapiens, were beginning to replace Neanderthals as the dominant hominid species on the planet .

Jean-Jacques Hublin, director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said that although scientists know that modern Homo sapiens expanded our range as Neanderthals disappeared, little is known on how we managed to achieve this. “We know what existed before and after, but we want to know how it happened,” he said.

A combined image.  On the left, we see a cave opening under a castle.  On the right, several leaf-shaped stone tools on a black background.
The Ranis Cave site, left, was particularly difficult because it sits beneath a castle and collapsed at some point in history, forcing archaeologists to drill through layers of rock. On the right, stone tools discovered earlier in the cave left researchers wondering whether they were made by humans or Neanderthals. (Tim Schüler TLDA / Joséphine Schubert, Burg Ranis Museum)

The question remained whether it was Neanderthals or Homo sapiens who made the stone tools in Ranis Cave. During the excavation, which took place from 2016 to 2022, the team discovered thousands of bone fragments and, by analyzing the collagen protein in the bones, determined that 13 fragments belonged to humans. They also re-tested other bone fragments that had been found in the cave in the 1930s and these were also found to be human. The rest were animal bones.

Previously, it was thought that humans came from Africa and wiped out the Neanderthals very quickly. But this discovery means that, on the contrary, humans and Neanderthals lived side by side for thousands of years.

“Our species was thought to have arrived in western Eurasia as a sort of wave of humans moving west and quickly replacing Neanderthals,” says Hublin, who led the study .

“What we are seeing now is that there has been a very long coexistence between the two groups.”

This makes this site the most northerly human settlement ever discovered at this time. Further isotope analysis of horse teeth found at the site revealed that the climate at the time was 12 degrees colder than it would be today.

A woman with short blue hair and glasses stands in a laboratory.  She looks at a metal machine, loading small fragments into the machine with tweezers.
Stable isotope archaeologist Sarah Pederzani loads small samples into the charger of an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to obtain information about past climates. (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

“We found that it was surprisingly cold when they were there. And that was, I would say, one of the biggest surprises of the project… it wasn’t really the accepted theory before,” Pederzani said , who led the project. paleoclimatic study of the site.

Together, it paints a picture of the resilience of early humans as they spread across the globe.

“It appears that they somehow settled on the outskirts of the Neanderthal world, probably in places more difficult for Neanderthals, and survived there, and lived there for several millennia before replacing Neanderthals further south,” Hublin said.

Ancient humans as ‘geniuses’ who made super strong ropes

The ivory tool adds to this image.

Found in the Hohle Fels cave in southwest Germany, radiocarbon dating suggests the ivory tool was made at least 35,000 years ago. It is a flat rod 20 centimeters long, made from a mammoth tusk, pierced with four holes, each lined with deep spiral incisions.

“It was a big deal to find the tool. Ivory artifacts are usually broken on site, sometimes pieces are missing,” Conard said. “Once washed and especially assembled, it was very clear that it had been made with extreme precision.”

The tool was initially thought to be a work of art, but Conard and his team reasoned that the object’s unique shape likely served a practical purpose.

“Because of the spiral grooves, I was pretty convinced it had something to do with putting something in the holes,” Conard said. “And we quickly thought, well, maybe you could use it to make rope.”

WATCH | A 36,000-year-old tool in action

Testing a 36,000-year-old stringing tool

Using a replica of this ancient tool, a team of four was able to make five meters of rope from cattail reeds in just ten minutes. (TraceoLab, University of Liège)

The team built a replica of the tool and, using cat’s tail reeds, found that a team of four could make five meters of rope in just ten minutes.

“(The rope was) really strong. We couldn’t find a way to break the rope,” Conard said.

Conard said he’s excited about the discovery because, for him, it’s further proof that our ancestors were just as resilient as humans are today.

“We already know that these people are as smart as us, right? They had art, musical instruments, all kinds of sophisticated technology,” he said.

“There were geniuses then, just as there are today, and they invented all sorts of wonderful things to cope with everyday life.”

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