Did earliest modern humans in Europe share a cave with Neanderthals?

The cave of Grotte Mandrin in the Rhône Valley, France. (Credit: Slimak et al Fig 1c)

Since 1999 a cave (Grotte Mandrin) on the west flank of the lower Rhône valley in sothern France has been revealing archaeological remains from 3 metres of sediment that can be divided into 12 distinct layers (Slimak, L. and 22 others 2022. Modern human incursion into Neanderthal territories 54,000 years ago at Mandrin, France. Science Advances, v. 8, article eabj9496; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abj9496). Tens of thousands of objects have been recovered, mostly from a layer just below midway in the sequence, which is dominated by small (<1 cm), ‘standardised’ stone points that are also found at other sites in the local area. This veritable industry – dubbed the ‘Neronian’ from the nearby Grotte de Néron – seems to have been focussed hereabouts. Older artefacts in layers F and G are considered to be Mousterian, that is generally ascribed to late Neanderthals. Horse, bison and deer bones suggest that these were the main source of animal protein for the cave’s occupants. The site also contained a few objects that show simple decoration. The way in which the Neronian points were produced resembles the working of similar artefacts in Lebanon by anatomically modern humans (AMH) about 45 ka ago; so it is possible that the technology had spread westward with the earliest AMH migrants into Europe. Yet precise radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating of the Grotte Mandrin site suggests that the sediment accumulated between 84 to 44 thousand years ago. The Mousterian/Neanderthal objects occur in layers F and G between 79 and 57 ka, whereas the Neronian layer E spans 56.8 to 51.7.

Grotte Mandrin has yielded very few hominin remains, except for 9 teeth in layers C to G. Those from C, D, F and G showed clear Neanderthal dental features. However, shape analysis of one damaged, deciduous (infant) molar from Layer E suggests that it matches Upper Pleistocene AMH dental morphology. That seems to place Grotte Mandrin as by far the oldest AMH occupation site in Europe, up 11 thousand years earlier than the 45 to 43 ka AMH site at Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria. To some extent that tallies with the tiny tooth’s association with a prolific, standardised and delicate industry new to the area: probably points for small projectiles. Neanderthals re-occupied the site in Layers D to B, yet in the upper part of layer B, from 44.1 to 41.5, there is a return of Neronian-like points, probably made by AMH.

A curious detail from layer E (not reported in this paper) is the occurrence of soot trapped in thin, annually deposited layers of carbonate on the cave walls. Fragments of the sooty speleothem continually fell onto the cave floor to be incorporated into the sediments. The base of layer E that contains Neronian, possibly AMH artefacts and the top of layer F that shows preceding Neanderthal occupation, contain such sooty speleothem fragments. Precise dating of them is claimed to suggest a very short period of transition between the two kinds of occupants: perhaps only a few years. Neanderthals and AMH may not have met in the cave, but may well have been co-occupants of the surrounding area at the same time.

A great deal of effort over more than two decades has gone into this publication, and several of its findings have caused quite a stir. Because permanent AMH occupation of the Levant began at least 55 ka ago, there is no reason to suppose that AMH migrating along the northern shores of the Mediterranean could not have arrived a little earlier in what is now southern France. What has been emphasised in the broad media is the exchange of a Neanderthal to an AMH population in the Grotte Mandrin, as if it was done in a friendly, indeed neighbourly spirit (!). That hinges on the ultra-precise dating of the sooty speleothem fragments to reveal just a few years between the Neanderthals doing a ‘flit’ and the AMH starting a ‘squat’ in the vacant premises to set up a cottage industry. The time of the replacement before present is, in fact, very close to the limit at which radiocarbon dating is feasible, almost all 14C formed at that time having decayed away since then. There can be no doubt that layer E did mark a major change in sophistication of stone technology, but was it really an AMH development? The only definite evidence is the single deciduous molar, and that is damaged to such an extent that an independent dental paleoanthropologist who has specialised in distinguishing AMH from Neanderthal dentition isn’t convinced. But,surely, DNA from the tooth would resolve the issue. The paper notes that trial extraction and sequencing of 6 horse teeth from layer E failed to yield results, which suggests degradation of genetic teril. So the team did not commit the tooth to sequencing, which would have further damaged it. Finally, four separate groups occupying what certainly looks like a nice little cave over the course of about 40 thousand years is hardly a surprise. Many caves throughout Europe and southern Africa show evidence of multiple occupancy. After all, before 11 ka all humans and their forebears were of necessity foragers and migrants; just think of how many times your neighbours have changed since you moved in …

See also: Price, M. 2022. Did Neanderthals and modern humans take turns living in a French cave? Science, v, 375, p. 598-599; DOI: 10.1126/science.ada1114