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Mandrin Cave

First Modern Humans in Europe
Child's tooth and Neronian tools

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View of Mandrin Cave: contains earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe
Aerial View of Mandrin Cave, Malataverne, Drome, France. Site of the earliest known fossil remains of modern Homo sapiens in Europe. Image by Ségolène Vandevelde. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Modern Humans in Mandrin Cave

Fossils of modern humans (that is, modern Homo sapiens) which were found recently at Mandrin Cave, in France, have been dated to between 52,800 and 54,800 BC.

This discovery rewrites the narrative of early humans just prior to the Upper Paleolithic, since it proves that moderns arrived in Europe some 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

For information about the earliest prehistoric art, which emerged during the Lower Paleolithic, see: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

Where is Mandrin Cave?

Grotte Mandrin is a Stone Age rock shelter located near the small town of Malataverne, in the Rhône Valley, about 80 miles north of Marseille.

Scientists believe the moderns arrived by boat. This is because the Neronian-style stone tools recovered from the same layer as the human fossils, were only found in the Rhône Valley and the eastern Mediterranean.

This suggests that the hominins who made them, arrived in the Rhône Valley by water transport, after all, the Rhône was one of the Mediterranean’s largest rivers.

What's more, modern humans arrived in Australia by boat at roughly the same time, and prehistorians believe their maritime navigation skills were shared among many of the modern populations in Eurasia. (See also: History of Stone Tools.)

Human Fossils and Artifacts

Mandrin Cave was discovered during the 1960s. Since then, it has yielded around a quarter of a million animal bones and stone artifacts, dating from the Middle Paleolithic.

In a recent study of the cave (published 2022), researchers analyzed twelve layers of archeological deposits which showed the cave was occupied alternately by Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon moderns.

Based on the age of smoke deposits on the roof of the cave, they were able to piece together the 500 different phases of occupation, although it was very unequal.

Neanderthals had inhabited the cave, on and off, for thousands of years: while the moderns (known in Europe as 'Cro-Magnons') occupied it for only 40 years.

There were four key layers of deposits, as follows:

See the World's Oldest Art!

Tooth of Modern Human Child

In Layer E, archaeologists found a single tooth from a modern human, aged between 2 and 6. It was sandwiched between layers that held Neanderthal tools, as well as teeth and other human remains.

Since Neanderthals had quite different teeth from Cro-Magnons, the tooth evidence is unmistakeable.

Archaeology at Mandrin Cave

For a short guide to how archaeologists find out about early hominins, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

Neronian Tools

Also in Layer E, researchers found dozens of stone projectile points. They consisted of arrowheads and spearheads all made using Neronian flint-knapping techniques.

The name derives from the nearby Grotte de Néron, where they were first discovered. These tool technologies are unknown in any stone tool industry of that age outside Africa or the Middle East.

Why is Mandrin Cave Important?

It's important for four main reasons.

More Plausible Account of Modern Humans' Migration

First, given that modern Homo sapiens began leaving Africa around 100,000 BC, Mandrin Cave offers a more plausible narrative for their arrival in Europe.

Up to now, Europe lagged far behind other destinations reached by moderns.

Now Europe has to some extent caught up.

Neanderthal Extinction Less Sudden

Second, it asks new questions about the relationship between moderns and Neanderthals.

In 2014, a study published in Nature, dated 196 samples of bone, charcoal and shell across 40 key European sites from Russia to Spain, and concluded that Neanderthals were extinct by 37,000 BC.

Since the earliest modern humans were thought to have arrived in Bulgaria around 43,000 BC, it meant that Neanderthals had disappeared from the continent of Europe within 6,000 years of the moderns' arrival.

If true, this showed that the established species was unable to compete with the newcomers and succumbed far quicker than one might have expected.

Now, however, we know that the two species co-existed for an additional 10,000 years, which is more consistent with evidence of peaceful co-existence and interbreeding, and indicates a more gradual weakening of Neanderthal communities in the face of Cro-Magnon competition.

Neanderthal Capacity for Art Less Certain

The earliest cave painting in Spain, at the caves of Ardales, Maltravieso and La Pasiega, dates to around 62,000 BC. Scientists used to think that these works predated the arrival of modern humans in Europe by about 20,000 years.

As a result, due to the size of the time gap, this cave art could not be attributed to a few super-early moderns, or to the influence of modern humans on Neanderthal behaviour. It was clear that Neanderthals were alone responsible for this parietal art, and therefore were perfectly capable of symbolic expression.

Now, however, less than 10,000 years separates the two events. And further discoveries of an even earlier modern presence in Europe might see the gap diminish even further.

Cro-Magnons Take Longer to Create Art

The earlier arrival of Cro-Magnons sheds new light on their artistic development and growth. Previously, only 5,000 years elapsed between their arrival in Europe and the first examples of their paleolithic art. See, for instance, the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BC) and the animal paintings at Altxerri Cave (37,000 BC).

But now, it seems, Cro-Magnons needed 15,000 years before they found their creative touch. Or did something happen that caused the incredible outburst of Franco-Cantabrian art after 40,000 BC?

For these four reasons, the moderns' occupation of Mandrin Cave as early as 54,000 BC, may rewrite the narrative of Stone Age culture during the final years of the Middle Paleolithic.

Other Hominins

For more about the chronology of paleoart, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

References

(1) "The earliest unequivocally modern humans in southern China." W. Liu et al. Nature 526, 696–699 (2015).
(2) "Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago." C. Clarkson et al. Nature 547, 306–310 (2017).
(3) "Grotta del Cavallo (Apulia – Southern Italy). The Uluzzian in the mirror." A. Moroni et al. J. Anthropol. Sci. 96, 125–160 (2018).
(4) "The makers of the Protoaurignacian and implications for Neandertal extinction." S. Benazzi et al, Science 348, 793–796 (2015).
(5) "Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour." S. Benazzi, K. Douka, C. Fornai, C. C. Bauer, O. Kullmer, J. Svoboda, I. Pap, F. Mallegni, P. Bayle, M. Coquerelle, S. Condemi, A. Ronchitelli, K. Harvati, G. W. Weber, Nature 479, 525–528 (2011).
(6) "The Uluzzian in the north of Italy: Insights around the new evidence at Riparo Broion." M. Peresani et al. Archaeol. Anthropol. Sci. 11, 3503–3536 (2019).
(7) "Initial Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria." J.-J. Hublin et al. Nature 581, 299–302 (2020).
(8) "Modern human incursion into Neanderthal territories 54,000 years ago at Mandrin, France." Ludovic Slimak et al. Science Advances. Volume 8, Issue 6. Feb 9, 2022.
(9) "Palaeolithic transition at Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria." Helen Fewlass et al. Nature Ecology & Evolution volume 4, pages 794–801 (2020).
(10) "The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance." Tom Higham et al. Nature volume 512, pages 306–309 (2014).
(11) Milisauskas, Sarunas (1974). European Prehistory: A Survey. Springer. ISBN 978-1-4419-6633-9.

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