An international research team, including the Belgians Freddy Damblon and Paul Haesaerts (both of the RBINS), has shown that modern humans were living on the cold steppes of present-day Austria 43,500 years ago. The findings throw new light on an era when modern humans populated Europe and ousted their Neanderthal neighbours.
Scientists generally assume that modern humans populated Europe between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, although not much is known about this period. Every new study adds a welcome piece to the complex puzzle.
A re-excavation of the Willendorf II site has yielded just such a piece. This is the site where the world-famous Willendorf Venus, presumed to be a fertility figurine, was found. At the same Austrian location in the Danube Valley a team of researchers, including pollen analyst Freddy Damblon and palaeobotanist Paul Haesaerts, examined the stone tools. They published their findings in the journal entitled Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
They worked out from a soil analysis and radiocarbon dating that the stone tools (mostly small blades used for spear tips) are at least 43,500 years old. This means they are the earliest scientific evidence we have of the presence of modern humans in Central Europe. Some of the remains are actually older, but cannot be considered reliable for research purposes: many are from earlier excavations and their link with modern humans is debatable.
The stone tools appear to be from the early Auragnician period, a late Palaeolithic culture generally estimated to be between 40,000 and 25,000 years old, but now clearly somewhat older – dating back at least 43,500 years. According to researchers the remains from the Auragnician period are a good indicator of the presence of modern humans. "The problem is that we have next to no human remains from the Early Upper Palaeolithic Period in Europe", says Bence Viola, one of the authors of the paper. "This means that we have to rely on archaeological indicators to find out when the first humans appeared. We have a few human artefacts from the Aurignician culture, and we think these are a good indication of the presence of modern humans."
One of the study's most important results is a description of the climate and vegetation at the time. Auragnician people lived in the Danube valleys in a cool, steppe-like, forest environment. According to researchers, these modern humans, who came from the south and were accustomed to much warmer temperatures, were well adapted to different climates.
The findings also imply that Neanderthals and modern humans lived alongside each other for longer than was previously thought, researchers now think they co-existed for several millennia. "The new dating suggests direct or indirect contact between human beings and Neanderthals, which may have led to sexual and cultural exchanges." How did we eventually supersede the Neanderthals? Some say we drove them away with violence; others speak of climatological conditions that proved fatal for them. Whatever actually happened remains a mystery for the time being.