Neanderthals and modern humans alternately occupied a rock shelter in southern France

A rock shelter in the Rhône Valley has been found to contain evidence of early modern human occupation interspersed with Neanderthal activity.

Whilst studying the Grotte Mandrin, situated in southern France, archaeologists examined nine fossilised hominin teeth found in the rock shelter in order to determine whether they belonged to Neanderthals or modern humans. They also analysed stone tools excavated from the same layers, and discovered that some artefacts closely resembled those commonly found at eastern Mediterranean sites occupied by modern humans.

Slimak-Metz The Grotte Madrin offers important information about the possible coexistence of Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe [Image: Ludovic Slimak]

The researchers discovered that the Grotte Mandrin contained several layers of fossilised modern human remains and tools sandwiched in between Neanderthal remains and tools, indicating that there were at least four phases of alternating Neanderthal and modern human occupation in the rock shelter. This suggests that modern humans did not simply replace Neanderthals in Europe, but that these hominin cousins may have coexisted in the same area for some time.

However, the material from the Grotte Mandrin does not offer any evidence of cultural exchange between either successive Neanderthal groups or between Neanderthals and modern humans, suggesting that these populations alternated rapidly without any significant interaction.

Radiocarbon and luminescence dating of sediments in the rock shelter also revealed some of the earliest evidence for modern humans in Europe.

The earliest modern human settlements previously known in Europe date to 45,000-43,000 years ago, with the exception of a possible sporadic appearance in Greece during the Middle Palaeolithic. However, the oldest layer containing modern human fossils in the Grotte Madrin has been found to date to c.54,000 years ago.

The research has been published in the journal Science Advances (