Members of our species were in Western Europe around 54,000 years ago

Enlarge (credit: Slimak et al. 2022)

According to a recent study, a child’s tooth unearthed from an old layer of a cave floor in Southern France belonged to a member of our species. If so, the tooth is now the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens living in Europe, and its presence means that our species shared Europe (or parts of it) with Neanderthals for at least 10,000 years. But other fossils from the site suggest that the Pleistocene tale of two species was more complex than we’ve realized.

Finding the first Homo sapiens in Europe

People lived at Grotte Mandrin, a rock shelter in Southern France’s Rhone Valley, for tens of thousands of years. Until roughly 54,000 years ago, those people were Neanderthals. In the oldest layers of cave floor sediment, archaeologists unearthed a child’s molar. Based on its shape and dimensions, the tooth once belonged to a Neanderthal child, which was exactly what paleoanthropologists would expect in a layer of sediment between 79,000 and 62,000 years old.

An adult Neanderthal molar from the next layer up, dated to between 69,000 and 56,000 years old, was also not startling to anthropologist Ludovic Slimak, of Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, and his colleagues. But a child’s molar unearthed from the next layer—somewhere between 56,800 and 51,700 years old—was a real surprise. The tooth’s size and shape was clearly not Neanderthal; when Slimak and his colleagues compared it to other upper second molars, they found that it fit best with very early members of our own species.

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