- Researchers discovered the tooth of a Homo sapien child dating back to about 54,000 years in France.
- The discovery would be the earliest evidence of modern humans living in Europe after migrating from Africa.
- The finding suggests Homo sapiens co-existed in the region alongside Neanderthals.
A child’s tooth discovered in a cave in France could be the first evidence of modern humans reaching western Europe about 54,000 years ago, around 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The finding suggests that Homo sapiens could have once co-existed in the region alongside Neanderthals before the latter’s extinction.
The fossilized molar belonging to a Homo sapiens child was found in a cave known as Grotte Mandrin in the Rhone Valley, according to research published by the academic journal Science Advances.
Professor Ludovic Slimak of the University of Toulouse, who led the team who made the findings, told the BBC that the discovery “literally rewrites all our books of history.”
“We are now able to demonstrate that Homo sapiens arrived 12,000 years before we expected, and this population was then replaced after that by other Neanderthal populations,” Slimak told the outlet.
Neanderthals are an extinct species of human that lived across Europe and Western Asia starting 400,000 years ago.
Although scientists are uncertain about the cause of their extinction, current theory suggests it took place about 40,000 years ago, soon after Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from Africa.
The new findings indicate the cave in Rhone Valley was inhabited alternatingly by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
The team was able to determine that at one point, the two species traded occupancy of the cave within just one year, according to the journal Science.
Archeologists determined this by uncovering fossil evidence found in different sedimentary layers deposited on the cave floor over thousands of years.
The researchers dated the site’s layers using radiocarbon and luminescence techniques, and the lower the layer, the further back in time they were able to see.
The layer containing the Homo sapiens child’s tooth, dating back to around 54,000 years, was sandwiched between different layers containing teeth belonging to Neanderthals, according to Science journal.
“We’ve often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals,” Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, a co-author of the study, said in a press release.
“This new evidence suggests that both the appearance of modern humans in Europe and disappearance of Neanderthals is much more complex.”
The tooth was found along with stone tools known as Neronian tools associated with modern humans.
Professor Ludovic Slimak told CNN that he believed the two groups must have exchanged knowledge somehow, as the tools were made from flint sourced from hundreds of kilometers away, knowledge which likely came from the indigenous Neanderthals.
“What precisely was the interaction? We just don’t know. We have no idea whether it was a good relationship or a bad relationship. Was it a group exchange, or did they have (Neanderthal) scouts to show and guide them?”
While this research is potentially groundbreaking, some experts urged caution as the claims rely upon the discovery of a single tooth.
Paleogeneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona told Science magazine that to make a stronger case, solid skeletal or genetic evidence would be needed.