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Neanderthal-Human Overlap

What 45,000-year-old bones reveal about the earliest history of modern humans

May 31, 2024
by Katherine Blesie
Profile view of Homo sapiens skull facing a Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) skull discovered in 1909 by Denis Peyroni and Louis Capitan on the Ferrassie site in France. Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) first appeared in Europe around 600,000 years ago, and co-existed with modern humans, who emerged around 200,000 years ago. Neanderthals went extinct, or interbred with modern humans, by around 25,000 years ago. PHILIPPE PSAILA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

A group of researchers, including Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Elena Zavala, recently confirmed that 45,000-year-old bone fragments found at an archaeological site in Germany belonged to modern humans. The finding provides convincing evidence that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals coexisted in Northern Europe for several thousand years—much longer than previously thought.

The site where the bones were found near Ranis, Germany, is known for its leaf point blades, which are similar to other stone tools found in the United Kingdom, Poland, Moravia, and Germany. Until now, these blades were considered to be the work of the only hominids thought to be in Northern Europe at that time: the extinct Homo neanderthalensis.

“It turns out that stone artifacts that were thought to be produced by Neanderthals were, in fact, part of the early Homo sapiens toolkit,” said Jean-Jacques Hublin, one of the study’s authors. “This fundamentally changes our previous knowledge about the period: H. sapiens reached northwestern Europe long before Neanderthal disappearance in southwestern Europe.”

Berkeley’s Zavala was responsible for conducting genetic analysis on bones excavated between 2016 and 2022 and also on earlier retrievals from the 1930s. She was surprised to discover that the mitochondrial DNA from all but one of the 13 fragments resembled mtDNA from a woman’s skull found in a Czech cave.

“That raises some questions: Was this a single population? What could be the relationship here?” Zavala said in an interview. “But with mitochondrial DNA… it’s only the maternal side. We would need to have nuclear DNA to be able to start looking into this.”

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