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Homo sapiens lived here at least 45,000 years ago: the Ilsenhöhle in Thuringia

Photo: Tim Student / TLDA / dpa

Homo sapiens colonized central and northwestern Europe much earlier than previously known. Finds from the Ilsenhöhle in Thuringia show that modern people lived there at least 45,000 years ago - back then it was around 7 to 15 degrees colder than today. This shows how well humans were able to adapt to harsh environmental conditions, writes an international research team led by Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

In addition, the three studies published in the journals "Nature" and "Nature Ecology & Evolution" (here, here and here) show that humans and Neanderthals coexisted in Europe for thousands of years, possibly even for more than 10,000 years.

The finds from the town of Ranis near Saalfeld undermine several paleontologists' assumptions. Until now, it was thought that modern humans only colonized Europe around 40,000 years ago and only appeared sporadically earlier. And certain stone blades, sometimes worked on both sides, which are older and also appeared in northwestern Europe, have previously been attributed to Neanderthals, who lived on the continent much earlier and disappeared around 40,000 years ago.

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Quite old: Thuringian stone tools

Photo: Josephine Schubert / Museum Burg Ranis / dpa

Who created the stone blades?

But in the Ilsen Cave, Hublin's team found bone remains next to these so-called LRJ blades, the DNA of which clearly comes from Homo sapiens. Consequently, LRJ stone blades, which were discovered in Great Britain, among others, probably also go back to Homo sapiens.

“The site in Ranis provided evidence of the first spread of Homo sapiens into the northern latitudes of Europe,” said Hublin, director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. “It is now certain that stone implements thought to have been made by Neanderthals are definitely from modern humans.”

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Find from the town of Ranis in Thuringia: Fragment of a human bone

Photo: Tim Student / TLDA / dpa

Thousands of bone fragments

The Ilsenhöhle, located directly below Ranis Castle, was extensively researched in the 1920s and 1930s. But during excavations after 2016, the team dug deeper and uncovered thousands of shattered bone fragments beneath the collapsed cave roof. Some of them clearly come from modern humans, others from animals.

"The archaeozoological investigations show that the cave in Ranis was alternately used by hyenas, hibernating cave bears and small groups of people," explained co-author Geoff Smith from the English University of Kent. "Although these people only used the cave for short periods of time, they consumed meat from a variety of animals, including reindeer, woolly rhinoceros, and horses."

Rough, barren landscapes

Isotope analyzes of horse teeth showed that a very cold continental climate prevailed in the region, particularly around 44,000 years ago. At that time the area resembled an open steppe like today's Siberia. Until now, researchers had assumed that humans' resistance to cold climate conditions only emerged several thousand years later. In fact, they seem to have been able to do this much earlier, as Ranis' finds show. It is possible that people even specifically moved to the cold region to hunt larger herds of animals.

Studies from the Mandrin cave in the Rhone Valley in southern France recently caused a stir. A research team found evidence of humans there dating back 54,000 years. These findings initially met with a cautious response from experts. That could change with Ranis's findings. "If confirmed, this would result in a complex mosaic picture for Europe, with groups of Neanderthals and humans as early as 55,000 to 45,000 years ago," writes Hublin's team.

It is unclear whether the early inhabitants of the Ilsenhöhle lived permanently in Central Europe or only ventured north seasonally, for example in the form of small mobile hunting parties. Be that as it may, they did not leave any traces in the genetic makeup of today's Europeans. The genetic lineage of these early humans eventually died out.