Study sheds light on Neanderthal-Homo sapiens transition

June 14, 2017
A stone tool thought to be a speartip made from radiolarite sourced over 100km to the east of the cave. Credit: Miroslav Kralík

Archaeologists at The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Sydney have provided a window into one of the most exciting periods in human history - the transition between Neanderthals and modern humans.

An archaeological dig in a cave in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic has provided a timeline of evidence from 10 sedimentary layers spanning 28,000 to 50,000 years ago. This is the period when our modern human ancestors first arrived in Europe.

The dig, in a cave near the Czech border with Austria and around 150kms north of Vienna, has unearthed over 20,000 animal bones as well as stone tools, weapons and an engraved bone bead that is the oldest of its kind in Central Europe.

ANU archaeologist Dr Duncan Wright said the project was so important because it gives some of the earliest evidence of modern human activity in the region. This was a period when humans were moving substantial distances and bringing with them portable art objects.

"In the early layers the items we've found are locally made flakes, possibly used by small communities living and hunting in the vicinity to kill animals or prepare food, but around 40,000 years ago we start to see objects coming from long distances away," Dr Wright said.

"Dating from this same time we unearthed a bead made from mammal bone. This is the oldest portable art object of its type found anywhere in central Europe and provides evidence of social signalling, quite possibly used as a necklace to mark the identity of the wearer.

"So between these two periods, we've either seen a change in behaviour and human movement or possibly even a change in species."

Archaeologist Ladislav Nejman of the University of Sydney said one of the biggest questions is the beginnings of human exploration of this landscape by Homo sapiens who arrived in this area for the first time.

"We've found that somewhere between 40-48,000 years ago people became highly mobile," Dr Nejman said.

"Instead of moving short distances near the cave where they lived, they were walking for hundreds of kilometres quite often. We know that because we found various artefacts where the raw material comes from 100-200 kilometres away.

"The artefacts were also made of different materials from different regions. Some from the North-West, some from the North, some from the East."

However in layer 10, which represents an earlier time period between 48-45,000 years ago, all the recovered stone artefacts were made using local raw material, which indicates that the high residential mobility came later.

Dr Nejman said the study also revealed valuable new information about the climate of the region.

"We haven't had such a long sequence of before that we could test," he said.

"The climate changed quite often from warmer to colder, and vice versa, but at all times it was much colder than the interglacial period that we have lived in for the past 10,000 years."

Samples from the site have been sent through for analysis using a new technique, called ancient sediment DNA analysis. This is the first scientific method that can detect which species were present even without the bones of these species. It tests remnant DNA preserved in the sediment.

Dr Wright said the results will shed new light on a period of transition between two species of humans and also give clearer evidence about the activities of our modern human ancestors in a period and region where little is known.

"We can tell by the artefacts that small groups of people camped at this cave. This was during glacial periods suggesting they were well adapted to these harsh conditions" Dr Wright said.

"It's quite possible that the two different species of humans met in this area."

Explore further: Scientists discover the oldest Homo sapiens fossils at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

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9 comments

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dirk_bruere
1 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2017
More exciting for them than us
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2017
More exciting for them than us

You know, I haven't rated anyone a "1" for months. But you totally deserve it. If you don't like science go play somewhere else.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 14, 2017
"one of the most exciting [read - tragic] periods in human history - the transition between Neanderthals and modern humans."

-I don't see how the extinction of a sentient species can be exciting unless you wrote the Turner Diaries.

"Instead of moving short distances near the cave where they lived, they were walking for hundreds of kilometres quite often"

-Yeah refugees will tend to do that. Refer to similar displacements by huns and mongols.
Anda
1 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2017
Sensationalist title and content
Jeffhans1
5 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2017
Trading allowed people to obtain resources from beyond their group boundaries allowing both groups to survive better. The spread of ideas that came with the trades is why we advanced so quickly. Without trade, humanity would not exist today.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2017
Trading allowed people to obtain resources from beyond their group boundaries allowing both groups to survive better. The spread of ideas that came with the trades is why we advanced so quickly. Without trade, humanity would not exist today
And what makes you assume they are trading and not on the run?
Jeffhans1
5 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2017
Trade routes can be established by looking at long term movement over long periods of time. One off finds of rocks hundreds or thousands of miles from their source isn't trade. Finding hundreds of tools made from non local resources over hundreds or thousands of years is due to trade, not theft or pursuit.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2017
Finding hundreds of tools made from non local resources over hundreds or thousands of years is due to trade
But thats not what the article says.

"...they were walking for hundreds of kilometres quite often. We know that because we found various artefacts where the raw material comes from 100-200 kilometres away"

-which implies that they were nomads who mined these distant materials themselves.

Youre assuming cooperation probably because you want to imagine that humans were friendly, egalitarian types.

"Ancient trade originated in the migratory patterns of prehistoric nomadic people..."

The presence of the materials in the article could also be explained by periodic raiding expeditions, in the same way that vikings 'traded' goods and services for britons' lives.
cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jun 15, 2017
The disappearance of neanderthal was the result of conquest, the typical outcome when tribes come into conflict over resources. Our tropical growth rate rarely allows for a steady state except when an overarching authority decides to manage interaction.

For instance a stable culture endured in greece for the better part of a millenium because when disputes arose among city states, kings would consult with the oracles who would tell them who would be allying with, and who would be fighting against, whom. In other words the outcomes of these ritual engagements were predetermined.

The central plains indians used to travel hundreds of miles north in summer to hunt buffalo. they would return south in the fall with hides, bone implements, and whatever else they could find.

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