Our species might have reached Europe earlier than thought

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© Tsenka Tsanova, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

This image provided by Tsenka Tsanova in May 2020 shows stone artifacts from the Initial Upper Paleolithic discovered in the Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria. Two new studies Monday, May 11, 2020, show that Homo sapiens bones found in the Bulgarian cave date back to as far as 46,000 years ago, which is thousands of years earlier than previous human fossils in Europe.(Tsenka Tsanova via AP)

Human bones from a Bulgarian cave suggest our species arrived in Europe thousands of years earlier than previously thought, sharing the continent much longer with Neanderthals.

Scientists found four bone fragments and a tooth that detailed radiocarbon and DNA tests show are from four Homo sapiens, the oldest of which is dated to about 46,000 years ago, according to two studies published Monday in the journals Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The previous oldest European human bone fragments were found in Romania. Efforts to date them ran into problems but they were likely from sometime around 40,000 years ago, give or take a few thousand years, said archaeologist Helen Fewlass of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, a study lead author. And that bone had Neanderthal genes in it, indicating that interbreeding had occurred about 200 or so years earlier, she said.

Researchers said they think our species came from Africa about 47,000 years ago during a brief warming period.

It means that for about 7,000 years or so, humans and Neanderthals lived on the same continent, interacting a bit, but probably not often, said institute director Jean-Jacques Hublin, another study lead author. Neanderthals went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

“We know that when they (humans) arrived, there were Neanderthals,” Hublin said. “The Danube Valley might have been a way for modern humans — by the way, at different periods — to move into this part of Europe.”

This early batch of our species probably never made it west over the Alps, was likely only a few hundred people and may have died off, Hublin said. Modern Europeans descended from a second later wave of humans out of Africa, he said.

The fossils were found in Bulgaria’s Bacho Kiro cave, which has been open to scientists and the public since 1930. The cave is on a very steep cliff and contains animal bones, including those of a rhinoceros and lions, Fewlass said.