Early arrival of ‘Homo sapiens’ in Spain revealed

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Homo sapiens

A team of Spanish paleoanthropologists has uncovered the remains of the first Homo sapiens to inhabit the rugged and inhospitable interior of the Iberian Meseta. This groundbreaking discovery suggests that Homo sapiens arrived in these regions much earlier than previously thought, between 36,000 and 31,000 years ago, shortly after the departure of the Neanderthals.

The research team found the remains in La Malia, a rocky shelter near the village of Tamajón in Guadalajara. The site revealed numerous sharp stone knives, spears for hunting from a distance, and horse and deer bones consumed by Homo sapiens around 33,000 years ago. La Malia, now home to just 148 inhabitants, has become a key location for understanding early human habitation.

This evidence provides insight into one of the most intriguing moments in human evolutionary history. About 42,000 years ago, the last Neanderthals left the Iberian high plains for warmer shelters in the south. Only 2,000 years later, these early Europeans, who had survived the harshest ice ages for tens of thousands of years, became extinct. The question remains whether the arrival of Homo sapiens played a role in their disappearance.

New insights into colonising hostile regions

Previously, it was believed that the interior of the peninsula was too cold and hostile for the first Homo sapiens who arrived in Iberia. It was thought they preferred coastal areas, leaving the inland uninhabited for 15,000 years after the Neanderthals’ disappearance. However, researchers from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre Evolución Humana in Burgos have now shown that Homo sapiens arrived much earlier, between 36,000 and 31,000 years ago, almost immediately after the Neanderthals left.

“The most striking thing is that we now have a better understanding of our species’ ability to colonise hostile areas,” said researcher Sala. “It is also a remarkable moment because it coincides with the disappearance of the Neanderthals and the arrival of Homo sapiens,” she added. The findings suggest that the interior of the Meseta was uninhabited for a much shorter period than previously thought and that Homo sapiens were capable of conquering this area.

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Technological advances and survival

The remains found in Guadalajara belong to the Aurignacian culture, known for some of the earliest artworks like the enigmatic lion-man sculpture from bone and the impressive cave paintings of Chauvet in France. While no artworks were found in La Malia, the site revealed significant technology for distance hunting and survival. The dating of the remains indicates that this rocky shelter was sporadically inhabited over thousands of years, with the first occupation around 33,000 years ago and a second around 27,000 years ago.

During this period, the landscape of the central peninsula changed drastically from a relatively temperate and wooded area to a very cold and sparsely vegetated region. Hunting became much more challenging for the new inhabitants. Despite these changes, the lifestyle and hunting methods of the Homo sapiens, focused on horses and deer, remained largely the same.

Scientific publication

The results of the research, published in Science Advances, add to the mystery surrounding the extinction of the Neanderthals. Sala cautions against concluding that Neanderthals were less adapted to their environment or had become dependent on a milder climate, which could have led to their extinction. What is now clear is that Homo sapiens quickly occupied the areas in the Meseta abandoned by the Neanderthals.

Recent DNA studies have shown that these early Homo sapiens from the Aurignacian culture, who already practiced distance hunting and art, also went extinct without leaving a trace. Subsequent waves of migration included those who created the famous bison cave paintings in Altamira.

Also see: Unique discovery in cave in Southern Spain rewrites history of Europeans


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