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Mandrin Cave

12 February 2022

At https://phys.org/news/2022-02-french-cave-story-neanderthals-early.html … Mandrin Cave, near Montclinier in southern France, is throwing up an oddity for archaeologists, but unsurprisingly one that supports the recent idea that modern humans were in Europe within the Neanderthal ascendancy. It therefore seems to fit, quite neatly, into the current mainstream position and train of thought, modern humans imposing their DNA on the Neanderthals. What has actually been found?

A research paper in Science Advances, February 2022, says fossilised homo sapien remains and tools have been found sandwiched between those of Neanderthals in the Mandrin cave sediment layer. This is not regarded as intrusive but a layer laid down over thousands of years by the separate and temporary occupation of the cave. This is said to provide evidence that modern humans existed within Neanderthal timescales, in Europe. Using 'new' techniques the authors dated the human remains to around 54,000 years ago – 10,000 years earlier than anywhere else in Europe. The tools of the modern humans are known as points – and were used as spear tips, for example, as well as scrapers for extracting meat from kills. Similar tools, we are assured, have been found in the Lebanon, 1900 miles away. The Levant in general is regarded as one of the routes of modern humans out of Africa and it is though this occurred overlapping with Neanderthals. However, this is largely theory without the necessary skulls, and assumptions on which group of people were using which type of stone tool. The problems inherent in the claims are very often glazed over but this research is an attempt to gel together the ideas behind current thinking. One source, we are told, has even said this represents evidence of sea travel through the Mediterranean to the Rhone estuary. The important point to bear in mind is that the researchers have found the purportedly modern human tools, and some teeth, in a layer sandwiched between two Neanderthal layers. It was a short lived introduction and the modern humans may have temporarily been in the region, moving on elsewhere. The cave was then reoccupied by Neanderthal hunters.

What might account for the oddity? One may wonder if the modern human designation of the tool kit is right, or not. Could it have been another group of Neanderthals? However, as the modern human toolkit is known from the Levant, and these are defined by archaeologists for a variety of reasons, the inference is that modern humans, or proto modern humans, were indeed exploring Europe 50,000 years ago. Without actual skeletal material there will always be doubts about the definition of modern humans at this time, but the researchers are relying on DNA evidence that shows Neanderthals, on the male side, had a genome that was modern human – which indicates either that Neanderthals are not quite as estranged from modern humans as scientists have previously thought, but had been interacting with each other over a long period of time. The other explanation might be that Neanderthals are just another form of modern humans, and their backward status is long overdue updating. See www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abj9496

William sent in a link to the same story – see https://www.yahoo.com/news/research-suggests-modern-humans-lived-1902369… … where we are told the Mandrin cave perches 325 feet up in the Prealps of southern France, a rock shelter rather than a cave, although elsewhere it is described as a grotto. It had a good view over the valley of the river Rhone. It would of course have attracted Palaeolithic hunters as it provided shelter from the elements. However, the site was also strategic as it overlooked a pinch in the valley floor as the river Rhone passed between two mountain ranges.

Investigation of the topmost ten feet of sediment on the cave floor, layer by layer, is how archaeologists managed to isolate the thin section with tell tale signs of modern humans, or a different group to local Neanderthals. The authors claim their findings will re-write European prehistory. However, the evidence is based on the toolkit and the teeth. Mainstream alleges, until now, that Neanderthals occupied Europe between 300,000 and 40,000 years ago. The latter date marks the Laschamp geomagnetic reversal event. Mainstream also believer that on occasion, Neanderthals mixed with modern humans, in order to account for the male genome, which appears to be modern human and not something quite different, as expected. In fact, a purely male Neanderthal genome is as yet unknown. MtDNA on the female side appears to differentiate between Neanderthals and modern humans – but perhaps that requires another look. All this is important stuff as far as human history is concerned as it seems to muddy the waters of the Out of Africa theory that has dominated human origins research for the last 50 years. Modern humans are being dated further and further back in time.

Until now it has been true to say that in excavations, and in cave sediments in particular, Neanderthal remains always precede those of modern humans, even though various dating techniques seem to show an overlap of 5 to 10 thousand years. If it is true that a dividing line exists as far as excavations are concerned, an obvious link with the Laschamp event seems reasonable – as in a recent paper on the event. It was a generalised claim and not necessarily supported by actual excavation and dating methodology, but has a nice ring to it as clearly a lot of big mammals experienced a mass die-off around 40,000 years ago, so why not Neanderthals as well. This idea would not be seriously contradicted by the fact that modern humans, or what are considered to be an early manifestation of modern humans, were leaving signs of their existence thousands of years prior to the Laschamp event. It simply makes it more interesting. Were the early modern humans really modern humans in the sense of a connection with the modern humans of the Upper Palaeolithic? Or are they two different branches of a line that developed into the Late Palaeolithic – and how does this toolkit fit into that pattern?

The Yahoo piece seems to supply some bits the Phys Org press release passes over. One of these is that small points may have been arrowheads. It is of course believed that bows and arrows arrived in Europe and other parts of the world with the appearance of modern humans, after 40,000 years ago. However, when we look at this in the round, it is true that bows and arrows could have arrived with newcomers after 40,000 years ago but this we may note coincides with the beginnings of the Late Glacial Maximum, when a large part of NW Europe was covered in ice and unsuitable for human hunters of large mammals. On the other hand, if bows and arrows had arrived prior to Laschamp and then the survivors would have had access to them. It may be that bows and arrows were more suitable for small game – with the temporary loss of big beasts. Swings and roundabouts I suppose. If the small points were arrowheads this may explain why the tool repertoire is defined as modern human rather than that of a Neanderthal group of people. In spite of the confidence of the authors, and their desire to be at the forefront of research on human origins, the evidence is not clear cut. However, I suspect it will be seized on by scientists as it supports the genetic evidence that has to be explained away somehow.

So, what was found? Some 1500 tiny triangular stone points which resemble arrowheads. Or were they spear points, and they may even be less like scrapers – but they did use pointy pieces of broken flint to scrape hides etc. These stone points have no precursors, and they do not occur in later Neanderthal deposits either. They appear on that evidence, as the researchers conclude, to a distinct group of hunters that temporarily set up camp, or sheltered in the cave. The similarity between these small stone points and similar tools found in the Levant appears to show people were exploring the European mainland in the years leading up to the Laschamp event, and not all people different to Neanderthals, arrived post-Laschamp. In fact, there are other sites in the Middle Rhone valley that contain similar stone points. Hence, this would tend to suggest arrows were in use prior to the arrival of Upper Palaeolithic people after 40,000 years ago. Nine teeth were also unearthed. One belonged to a boy who was said to be a modern human, presumably by genetic evidence. That does not really tell us much as we already know the male genome of Neanderthals was already modern human for a long time prior to Laschamp. The dating methodology used to arrive at 54,000 years ago is interesting as it was based on speleotherms, the carbon carbonate deposit found in caves and caused by dripping water forming a film on cave walls. Not sure how reliable speleotherms are as they appear to cause multi proxy dating methodologies to date objects more ancient than simply using a combination of tree rings and C14. These are incorporated into the IntCal 13 and IntCal 20 efforts to achieve a more consistent dating process, and to eliminate the Hallstatt plateau. Several different methodologies are combined and then averaged by Bayesian methodology to arrive at dates that do not tie up with low growth tree rings events, even more frustrating than the Hallstatt Plateau. However, as the defined layer in the cave sediment was located between two specifically Neanderthal layers one has to accept that a date of around 50,000 years ago would be consistent with previous discoveries and the toolkit definitely was introduced prior to Laschamp – which defines the disappearance of the Neanderthals. It also defines the disappearance of Neanderthal contemporaries in other parts of the world, such as the Denisovans, and perhaps even any residue of Homo erectus. A fascinating piece of research. It does open a lot of questions that have previously been boxed away as solved, and left to simmer on the sidelines. It also blows a hole in Out of Africa, which like climate change appears to be driven by politics.

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