Findings indicate that these medications might hold the key to reducing the risk of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)
In a groundbreaking discovery, genetic analysis of bone fragments recovered from an archaeological site in central Germany has provided definitive evidence that modern humans, or Homo sapiens, inhabited Northern Europe a staggering 45,000 years ago.
This revelation indicates a significant overlap in existence with their Neanderthal counterparts, shedding light on the intricate history of our species and its interactions with the Neanderthals, who would eventually go extinct.
The archaeological site in question, near Ranis, Germany, is renowned for its finely crafted leaf-shaped stone tool blades, known as "leaf points." These stone blades bear a striking resemblance to tools found at various sites across Moravia, Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, all attributed to the same culture referred to as the Lincombian–Ranisian–Jerzmanowician (LRJ) culture.
While the site's age had previously been estimated to be at least 40,000 years old, the lack of identifiable bones had left a lingering question regarding the culture's creators—Neanderthals or Homo sapiens.
However, a trio of papers published in the journals Nature and Nature Ecology and Evolution now unveils the truth behind these ancient artifacts. Genetic analysis, combined with archaeological, isotopic, and radiocarbon dating, paints a vivid picture of early human history in Europe.
Elena Zavala, one of the lead authors of the Nature paper and a Miller Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, explains, "Homo sapiens made this technology, and Homo sapiens were this far north at this time period, which is 45,000 years ago. So these are among the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe."
This discovery, spearheaded by Jean-Jacque Hublin, former director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, challenges existing knowledge about the timeline of Homo sapiens' arrival in Northwestern Europe. Hublin remarks, "The Ranis cave site provides evidence for the first dispersal of Homo sapiens across the higher latitudes of Europe. It turns out that stone artifacts that were thought to be produced by Neanderthals were, in fact, part of the early Homo sapiens toolkit."
A human bone fragment from the new excavations at Ranis. UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Elena Zavala analyzed DNA from numerous bone fragments found at Ranis and discovered that many were from modern humans, Homo sapiens. (CREDIT: Tim Schüler TLDA)
The genetic analysis conducted by Zavala utilized hominid bone fragments unearthed at Ranis between 2016 and 2022, as well as fragments from excavations in the 1930s. These ancient bones contained highly fragmented DNA, primarily mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) inherited solely from the mother. Remarkably, several fragments shared identical mtDNA sequences, linking them to the same individual or maternal relatives across different excavations.
Dorothea Mylopotamitaki, another lead author and doctoral student at the Collège de France, initially identified these bone fragments as human using paleoproteomics, the study of bone proteins. By comparing Ranis mitochondrial DNA sequences with those from other European paleolithic sites, Zavala constructed a family tree of early Homo sapiens across Europe, revealing a surprising connection between Ranis and a 43,000-year-old skull discovered in the Czech Republic.
Stone tools from the Lincombian–Ranisian–Jerzmanowician technocomplex at Ranis. The partial bifacial blade point (left) is characteristic of the stone tools produced by hominids, now identified as modern humans, who occupied the Ranis cave. Stone tools like this are found at several sites across northwestern Europe, though excavations at Ranis in the 1930s also uncovered finely made bifacial leaf points (right) made by the same cultural group. (CREDIT: Josephine Schubert, Museum Burg Ranis)
However, mitochondrial DNA only provides insight into the maternal side of the story. Zavala acknowledges the need for nuclear DNA to explore the complete history further.
Aside from genetic analysis, the excavation and analysis of sediment samples have offered a glimpse into the environment and diet of ancient inhabitants.
The presence of reindeer, cave bears, woolly rhinoceros, and horse bones indicates frigid climatic conditions similar to modern-day Siberia and northern Scandinavia. This environment primarily supported large terrestrial animals, suggesting that the cave was predominantly used by hibernating cave bears and denning hyenas, with intermittent human visits.
The cave site Ilsenhöhle beneath the castle of Ranis. The cave was first excavated more than 90 years ago, and re-excavated between 2016 and 2022. (CREDIT: Tim Schüler TLDA)
Sarah Pederzani, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of La Laguna in Spain, remarks, "Until recently, it was thought that resilience to cold-climate conditions did not appear until several thousand years later, so this is a fascinating and surprising result."
The Ranis site, also known as Ilsenhöhle, was initially excavated between 1932 and 1938, dating the leaf points to the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods. Recognizing its significance in understanding the LRJ technocomplex and the transition from Neanderthal-associated late Middle Paleolithic to modern human Upper Paleolithic in central Europe, Hublin's team embarked on a new excavation.
Workers at the bottom of the 8-meter-deep trench excavated at Ranis, Germany, to recover evidence of hominids dwelling in the area 45,000 years ago. (CREDIT: Marcel Weiss)
The modern excavation extended to bedrock, approximately 8 meters below the surface, and involved removing a fallen rock that had impeded previous efforts. This endeavor unearthed flint tools and a quartzite flake consistent with the LRJ technocomplex.
Proteomic analysis confirmed that four of the bone chips were from hominids, while nine of the bone chips from the 1930s excavations were also identified as such. Zavala's DNA analysis subsequently confirmed that all 13 bone fragments belonged to Homo sapiens.
Overview of the bone fragments and ancient mammalian DNA identified across layers 12–7 at Ilsenhöhle in Ranis. The bone fragment line includes identifications both based on morphology and through ZooMS. (CREDIT: Nature Ecology and Evolution)
Radiocarbon dating of human and animal bones from different layers of the site established a chronological timeline, pinpointing sporadic human occupation dating back as early as 47,500 years ago.
These findings provide crucial insights into our species' interactions with Neanderthals and the complex history of early human settlement in Europe. As more research unfolds, we can expect further revelations about our distant past.
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