Homo sapiens at Mandrin Cave

Mandrin cave in France pushes back earliest date for Homo sapiens in France to c.54,000 years ago, and offers new insights on our links with the Neanderthals.

What happened to the Neanderthals in Europe? Did they perish in the face of relentless attacks by incoming Homo sapiens? Or did they coexist for a while, then eventually become extinct? Their fate has been debated ever since the 19th century. New research in Mandrin cave near Montelimar in southern France has thrown new light on the controversy.

Both Neanderthal and modern human bones have come from the cave, dated to about 54,000 years ago. This date is some 10,000 years earlier than many estimates of the first settlement of Europe by moderns, except for some finds in Greece. The researchers found Neanderthal and Homo sapiens remains sandwiched between one another, also numerous stone tools. In one case, the rapid succession of the cave’s occupants had been as short as a year. The tools included carefully made points which are said to be near-identical to contemporary spear heads unearthed about 3,000km away.

Do these artifacts provide proof of direct migrations from the eastern Mediterranean to southern France? Probably not – and a large number of additional sites would be needed to document it. But the similarities are said to be striking. It is worth pointing out that the Rhone Valley would have been a key link for people moving between the Mediterranean and areas further inland. There are no signs of face-to-face interactions between the Neanderthals and their modern contemporaries. Indeed, the modern human visit may have been a short one, followed by several millennia of Neanderthal occupation.

Whatever the circumstances, Mandrin provides evidence for modern human incursions into Europe at least 54,000 years ago, much earlier than previously suspected.

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Image: Archaeologists at work at the entrance to the Mandrin cave, southern France.

Credit: Ludovic Slimak