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Study: Modern people colonised Europe in three successive waves

According to new research, between 54,000 and 42,000 years ago, modern humans had to colonize Europe in three successive waves. Researchers have been examining caves in the Rhone valley and have found evidence suggesting that Homo sapiens had to make three determined attempts to move from western Asia to the west and north before they could settle on the continent.

Ludovic Slimak, who is leading the excavations in France, explained that the first two waves failed, but the third one succeeded around 42,000 years ago. After that, modern humans took over in Europe, and the Neanderthals, who had evolved on the continent, died out.

This controversial research also disputes the origins of one of the important ancient stone tool industries that have been discovered in central France. The lithic industry that produced these tools is called Châtelperronian, after the place where the first specimens were discovered in the nineteenth century. These tools have now been attributed to Neanderthal toolmakers by many scientists, but Slimak rejects this view.

He argues that the Châtelperronian tools are the handiwork of modern humans, and given their similarity to stone tools that were being made in the Middle East, he concludes that they were brought there by Homo sapiens as they moved into Europe.

The 54,000-year-old pointed stone tools that have been discovered in the Grotte Mandrin cave in the Rhône Valley resemble arrowheads and have led Slimak to argue that modern humans, who first emerged from Africa around 60,000 years ago, may have been equipped with bows and arrows.

The ability to kill prey from a distance without putting themselves at risk would have given the newcomers a significant edge over the native Neanderthals. However, after around 40 years, this initial population of modern humans that arrived at the site vanished from the fossil record, and Neanderthals later took over the area.

Slimak believes that the early waves of humans simply lacked numbers. He estimates that there were up to 100 men, women, and children in the Grotte Mandrin settlement. That may not have been sufficient to maintain their biological strength, and perhaps they could not exchange genes with local Neanderthals because the fertility between them was poor.

He disagreed with the notion that modern humans and Neanderthals did not get along well. In fact, all signs point to healthy relations between the two groups.

However, the third wave was different. This time, it seems that our ancestors did have the numbers. Slimak explained that “the third time they came in, modern humans did so with a really huge wave of people and began to build social networks, not with Neanderthals but with individual small separate groups of Homo sapiens in order to build a huge network throughout Europe. And in the end, that is what started the decline of the Neanderthals in Europe.”


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