The story of the first encounters between Neanderthals and modern humans could depend on hundreds of small stones found in a cave in southern France. Carved with care, these flint stones would be arrowheads, according to the authors of the discovery. Dating back about 54,000 years, it would be the oldest example of its use in Western Europe. There is consensus among scholars of human evolution that the bow and arrow was a technology that gave modern humans a competitive advantage over Neanderthals. If confirmed, it would mean that the sapiens they reached the domains of the neanderthalensis millennia earlier than previously thought. But the doubt spreads among other scientists.
In February of last year, a group of French scientists published a study that raised as much dust as skepticism among paleontologists. In that work, they detailed the discovery of several teeth in a cave in the Rhône Valley, in France. All belonged to Neanderthals, except for one: an incomplete milk tooth from a child no more than seven years old. They maintain that it belonged to a Homo sapiens, that is, to a modern human. They estimated that he must be 54,000 years old. The problem with this dating is that it would imply advancing the arrival of the Cro-Magnons in Western Europe by several millennia. Hence the relevance of this new work, published in Science Advanceswhich adds a second argument, arrows, an invention of modern humans.
For about 300,000 years, the European territories were the domain of the Neanderthals, who became extinct about 40,000 years ago, cornered, it seems, in the Iberian Peninsula. Although it is a debated topic, for scientists, these humans would have succumbed in a process in which the expansion of other humans, the modern ones, was key. During that period, the sapiens They left Africa through Suez and spread throughout the rest of the world, reaching Western Europe in the final part of the Middle Paleolithic. The safest clues are found in Germany and Italy between 48,000 and 45,000 years ago. Supporting the turning of this story into a single tooth is, at least, compromised.
But the same researchers who found the milk tooth found some 1,500 stone artifacts in the same layer of ground. Made mostly of flint or flint, there are cutting blades, flakes sharp on both sides and a blunt end and hundreds of small triangular-shaped points. To them, they must be arrowheads. That would imply that those humans used bows and arrows to hunt, a technology that the Neanderthals did not have and that gave the humans a competitive advantage. sapiens. They studied them in great detail, getting to mount them on new arrows (see image) and shooting them on animals to see their wear and compare them with those in the cave.
The researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille (France) and first author of the study, Laure Metz, explains the relevance of analyzing these pieces: “By studying the points and all the other artifacts discovered in the Mandrin cave, we deeply enrich our knowledge of these technologies in Europe and allows us to push back the era of archery in Europe by more than 40,000 years”, says the also scientist from the University of Connecticut (United States). The comparison with what was found in other layers that correspond to the Neanderthal occupation also allows us to know what weapons they used. “The study shows that Neanderthals did not develop mechanically propelled weapons and continued to use their traditional weapons based on the use of huge spear-shaped points that were pushed or thrown by hand,” Metz completes.
“The arc offers a fundamental competitive advantage to populations familiar with this technology”
Ludovic Slimak, researcher at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France
The senior author of this research Ludovic Slimak, a researcher at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès (France), highlights in an email the importance of the arrows they have found: “The bow offers a fundamental competitive advantage to populations familiar with this technology ” Among his arguments, he recalls that bows and other propulsion systems such as assegayas allow hunting at a distance with great precision at great speed and greater efficiency. “The list is very long and it makes a big difference with populations that only used heavy hand-thrown spears, like the Neanderthals,” he adds. These would need close contact with their prey, something that complicates hunting and makes it much more dangerous. “Arcs offer safe, easy, and nearly infinite access to protein. And this must have had a direct impact also on how many people you can feed and therefore how many children you can safely support,” Slimak concludes.
Joseba Ríos Garaizar is an expert in the lithic industry of ancient humans, formerly at the CENIEH and now at the Bilbao Archaeological Museum. That is to say, he studies his stone tools and weapons, in particular the marks that his use leaves on them. For him, the hypothesis posed by this work is very suggestive, but he believes that they go too far. “It is clear that some of the points have impact marks, but not all. They could have been part of a propelled weapon, but that they were arrows is saying a lot, ”he says. Another question raised by this work is the dating of the tips. To date the stratum where they found them, as well as the milk tooth, they resorted to the soot from the bonfires accumulated on the walls of the shelter. The Mandrin grotto has been inhabited for millennia, but not continuously. So layers of soot alternate with calcium carbonate deposited like that of stalagmites. Like tree rings, this allowed them to estimate that they were 54,000 years old.
“It is clear that some of the points have impact marks. They could have been part of a propelled weapon, but that they were arrows is saying a lot”
Joseba Ríos Garaizar, expert in the lithic industry from the Archaeological Museum of Bilbao
Enrique Baquedano, director of the Archaeological and Paleontological Museum of the Community of Madrid, recalls that this dating technique must be combined with others and even so, he says, “it is a very complicated dating.” This scientist agrees with Ríos Garaizar in highlighting the suggestiveness of the hypothesis of the first modern humans with their bows and arrows. But he also adds another weak point in this idea: “It is a very powerful result, but it depends on a single milk tooth that is not even complete, it is broken.” Baquedano, who recently published a paper on hunting and its symbolism among Neanderthals, also recalls that, “while it is true that they did not have arrows, their lithic industry also includes very small things.”
The co-director of Atapuerca, Juan Luis Arsuaga, likes the idea that they are arrows and that they were among the first modern humans to arrive in Europe, but “it would have to be proven,” he says in an email. Like other colleagues, he doubts the identification that was made of the milk tooth. He does not get involved in the arrows, since, he says, it is a question that archaeologists must solve, not paleontologists like him. For Arsuaga there are three possibilities: “Either the Neanderthals used thrusters/bows or the inhabitants of the Mandrin cave were Cro-Magnons or the stone tips were not for arrows or assegai, but for javelins that were thrown by hand.”
This investigation, as relevant as it is questioned, has an ending that is not without irony. The soot on the walls indicates that that first wave barely lived 40 years in the Mandrin cave. Afterwards there is no more trace of them in the strata of the cave that, centuries later, would be used again by the Neanderthals.
When asked why a group with superior technology does not survive to the second generation, Slimak, who has been defending his thesis since he began digging at Mandrin two decades ago, recalls the following: “The ability to reach a territory does not imply that your population will remain forever in a certain territory. An important issue for nomadic populations living in small groups is being able to create a strong network of social connections with Aboriginal populations. This is essential, since the survival of any traditional nomadic population requires the exchange of genes to reproduce and survive”. Although this happened millennia later, as the percentage of Neanderthal DNA in present-day humans shows, it seems that this was not the case with the ancients. sapiens from that cave.
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