New discoveries show that early humans lived in the frozen north alongside Neanderthals

Quirks and quarks17:37Understand when (previously), and how (previously), people lived in the Stone Age in Europe

Several recent discoveries unveiled this week shed light on the lives, creativity and resilience of ancient humans as they initially spread around the world.

First: Three research papers published in the journal nature Description of the discovery of human bones in a cave near Ranes, in northern Germany. Detailed analysis of bones and sediments from the cave suggests humans were there 45,000 years ago, surprising archaeologists who previously believed humans were clinging to warmer climates at that time.

“This really goes against this kind of well-established model of how humans were able to spread into new environments,” says Sarah Bidarzani of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “So it’s really interesting because it shows that they were actually more adaptable than we initially thought.”

In a different cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered a tool made of ivory, which they believe ancient humans used to spin ropes more than 35,000 years ago. The discovery was described in the journal Sciences.

Four views of a flat piece of mammoth ivory, with three holes drilled into it.
This tool, made of ivory from a mammoth tusk, is believed to have been used to make rope. It was found in Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. (Conard et al., Sci. Adv. 10, eadh5217, 2024)

This discovery is particularly interesting given that most of what we know about our ancestors comes from stone tools, since softer materials like fibers rarely survive thousands of years of degradation. But for Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist from the University of Tübingen in Germany, it makes sense that ancient humans would have needed ropes in their daily lives.

“It’s interesting when we think about the important technologies that have been invented over time,” said Conard, part of the team behind the discovery. “A lot of people talk about the wheel, but the rope has been around for a long time.”

“They need reliable technology, just as we need reliable technology, so we thought things like this should exist.”

Humans living in the “surprisingly cold” north.

Ranis Cave was chosen because previous excavations have uncovered stone tools dating back to the time when our ancestors, Homo sapiens, began to replace Neanderthals as the dominant species of humans on the planet.

While scientists know that modern Homo sapiens expanded our range as Neanderthals disappeared, little is known about how we were able to do so successfully, said Jean-Jacques Hublin, director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “We know what existed before and after that, but we want to know how this happened,” he said.

Photo collage.  On the left, a cave opening is visible below the castle.  On the right, several leaf-shaped stone tools on a black background.
The cave site at Ranis, left, was particularly challenging because it is located beneath a castle, and it collapsed at some point in history, leaving archaeologists to penetrate layers of rock. On the right, stone tools found earlier in the cave have researchers wondering whether they were made by humans or Neanderthals. (Tim Schuler TLDA/Josephine Schubert, Burg Ranes Museum)

The question remains as to whether Neanderthals or Homo sapiens made the stone tools in Ranis Cave. During the excavations that took place from 2016 to 2022, the team uncovered thousands of bone fragments, and by analyzing the collagen protein found in the bones, 13 pieces belonging to humans were identified. They also retested other bone fragments found in the cave in the 1930s, and they turned out to be human as well. The rest were animal bones.

Previously, it was thought that humans came from Africa and wiped out Neanderthals very quickly. But this discovery means that humans and Neanderthals were living side by side for thousands of years.

“There was a picture that our species came to western Eurasia as a wave of humans moving west and rapidly replacing Neanderthals,” says Hublin, who led the study.

“What we see now is that there has been a very long coexistence between the two groups.”

This makes the site the most northerly human settlement ever found in this time period. Additional isotopic analysis of horse teeth found at the site revealed that the climate at that time was 12 degrees cooler than it is today.

Woman with short blue hair and glasses in laboratory.  You look at a metal machine, and load small fragments into the machine with tweezers.
Stable isotope archaeologist Sara Bidarzani loads small samples into an isotope ratio mass spectrometer journal in order to obtain information about past climates. (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

“We found that it was surprisingly cold when they were there,” said Bidarzani, who led the research team. “That was, I would say, one of the biggest surprises of the project… This was not the accepted theory before.” Study of the ancient climate of the site.

All together paints a picture of the resilience of early humans as they spread across the globe.

“They appear to have settled somehow on the fringes of the Neanderthal world, perhaps in places that were more difficult for Neanderthals, and they survived there, living there for several thousand years before replacing Neanderthals to the south,” Hublin said.

Ancient humans are “geniuses” who created an extremely strong rope

The ivory tool adds to that image.

It was found in Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany, and radiocarbon dating suggests the ivory tool was made at least 35,000 years ago. It is a flat rod 20 centimeters long, made from mammoth tusk, and has four holes drilled through it, each lined with deep spiral notches.

“It was quite a big deal to find the artifact. The ivory artifacts are usually broken in place, and sometimes the pieces are missing,” Conard said. “Once it was washed and specially assembled, it was very clear that it was meticulously crafted.”

The artifact was initially thought to be a piece of art, but Conard and his team felt that the item’s unique shape likely served a practical purpose.

“Because of the spiral grooves, I was pretty convinced it was a matter of putting something through the holes,” Conard said. “And we very quickly thought, ‘Well, maybe you can use it to make rope.’

watched A 36,000-year-old tool in action

Testing of a 36,000-year-old rope-making tool

Using a replica of the ancient tool, a team of four people were able to create a five-metre-long rope from a cat’s tail cane in just ten minutes. (Traceolab, University of Liège)

The team built a replica of the tool, and using a cat’s tail cane, they found that a team of four people could make five meters of rope in just ten minutes.

“(The rope was) really, really strong. We couldn’t find a way to break the rope,” Conard said.

Conard said he is excited about the discovery because, to him, it is further evidence that our ancestors were as resilient as humans are today.

He added: “We already know that these people are just as smart as us, right? They had art, musical instruments, and all kinds of advanced technology.”

“There were geniuses then, just as there are now, and they invented all sorts of great things to bring about everyday life.”

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