As recently as 2021, most scholars still believed that modern humans first arrived in Europe about 42,000 years ago. But a 2022 research project produced evidence of an earlier wave of migrants who occupied European lands 54,000 years ago, shaking the standing theory to its core. Now, the lead author of that 2022 study has just published the results of new research that complicates the picture even further.
In a paper appearing in the journal PLOS One , archaeologist and cultural anthropologist Lubovic Slimak from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) identifies a third wave of human settlers who completed the epic trek from Africa to Europe approximately 45,000 years ago.
“Until 2022, it was believed that Homo sapiens had reached Europe between the 42nd and 45th millennium. The study shows that this first Sapiens migration would actually be the last of three major migratory waves to the continent, profoundly rewriting what was thought to be known about the origin of Sapiens in Europe,” Slimak said in a statement issued to the scientific press.
From Africa, to the Levant, to Europe: Tracking Ancient Human Migration
Previously, the oldest confirmed artifacts connected to modern humans in Europe were several teeth found in Bulgaria and Italy that were dated to approximately 40,000 BC. In a landmark 2022 study, however, Slimak and an international team of archaeologists revealed that a tooth found at the Grotte Mandrin site in the Rhone Valley in southern France belonged to a modern human who lived 54,000 years ago, at a time when Neanderthals alone were thought to occupy the lands of modern-day Europe.
The researchers in this study found a connection between the ancient tooth and stone tools uncovered in a nearby cave, Grotte de Néron. Based on this relationship, they dubbed the newly discovered inhabitants of prehistoric France the Neronian people. The 42,000-year-old teeth discovered in southern and eastern Europe had been linked to the Protoaurignacians, the founders of Europe’s original hunter-gatherer culture.
In his latest research project, Slimak performed a comparative study of tens of thousands of stone tools collected primarily from two archaeological sites: the aforementioned Grotte Mandrin , where Slimak has been leading excavations for three decades, and Ksar Akil in Lebanon (some of the tools he looked at were found at locations near these two caves). The latter site is one of many ancient human settlements found in the eastern Mediterranean or Levant region, which includes the lands of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
The paper provides evidence for 3 distinct waves of early migration of Sapiens in Europe from the East Mediterranean coast. The image shows 3 technical traditions of each of these Sapiens migrations. Phase 1, around the 54th millennium, is represented by the Neronian/Initial Upper Paleolithic; phase 2 by the Châtelperronian/Early Upper Paleolithic around the 45th millennium, and phase 3 by the Protoaurignacian/Southern Early Ahmarian around the 42nd millennium. (Ludovic Slimak/CC-BY 4.0/ PLOS ONE )
Researchers believe that the Levant was a major entryway for the first humans who left Africa to explore far-off lands, meaning that people who settled in the Levant tens of thousands of years ago may have been directly related to other human migrants who kept moving until they arrived in Europe. To test this hypothesis, Slimak decided to compare stone artifacts discovered in the Levant with those unearthed in Europe, to see if there were significant similarities.
And he found that there were.
The 54,000-year-old Neronian tools from Grotte Mandrin were made in the same style as the tools discovered at Ksar Akil, suggesting they’d been created by members of a common culture. But what was most remarkable is that Slimak’s analysis identified three distinct eras of toolmaking in each region, dating to approximately 54,000, 45,000 and 42,000 years ago. Putting two and two together, Slimak surmised that the three sequences of parallel toolmaking that connected the two areas meant that migrants had arrived first in the Levant and later in Europe in three separate waves, over the course of approximately 12,000 years.
“I built a bridge between Europe and the East Mediterranean populations during the early migrations of sapiens in the continent,” Slimak said in an interview with Live Science .
One fascinating aspect of this study is that it upends previous conclusions about the accomplishments of the Neanderthals, who lived alongside Homo sapiens in Europe for a few thousand years before finally disappearing. It seems that certain artifacts credited to Neanderthal industry were most likely made by humans.
Found at many different excavation sites in France, the toolmaking industry known as Chatelperronian has been dated to approximately 45,000 years ago, or to the Early Upper Paleolithic period. These tools have long been believed to have been made by Neanderthals, since they didn’t fit with the old timeline that claimed humans first arrived in Europe 3,000 years after the Chatelperronian culture began its toolmaking activities.
But as Slimak discovered, some tools found in the Levant that were unquestionably made by humans closely resemble Chatelperronian tools. And as coincidence would have it, these tools have also been dated to the Early Upper Paleolithic.
Needless to say, Slimak does not believe this is a coincidence.
“Chatelperronian culture, one of the first modern traditions in western Europe and since then attributed to Neanderthals, should in fact signal the second wave of Homo sapiens migration in Europe, impacting deeply our understanding of the cultural organization of the last Neanderthals,” Slimak said in his statement, adding the final element to his three-migration wave theory.
Three Waves, Four Waves … Who Really Knows How Many
Because Lubovic Slimak is the first to report three distinct phases of common toolmaking connecting the prehistoric Levant with the first modern humans in Europe, his three-wave theory is bound to generate both controversy and further study.
“I see this paper generating a number of research projects to support or refute it,” predicted the study’s English translator, University of Connecticut archaeologist Christian Tyron, in an email sent to Live Science. “People now need to look at some of the archaeological sites here with a critical eye, to see if they see the same kinds of technical details reported by Slimak. This is the start of a long process, I suspect.”
It should be noted, there is evidence (not considered conclusive) that groups of modern humans were traveling across Europe long before the oldest confirmed migrants arrived around 54,000 BC. As the question of ancient human migration from Africa to Eurasia continues to be explored, it may ultimately become clear that people migrated to Europe in a multitude of waves, and that these mass movements started much further back in antiquity than the current consensus would admit.
Top image: Evidence from stone tools indicate earliest humans migrated to Europe in three waves. Source: Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde