A 54,000-year-old tooth seems to force us to rewrite the histories of both our species and that of the Neanderthals.

We have known for some time that our own human history is complex. But a new study complicates the story of humanity even more. Researchers have found a milk tooth of a modern human in the Rhone Valley in France. After analysis, the tooth turns out to be about 54,000 years old. And that means that, remarkably enough, our ancestors arrived in Europe much earlier than previously thought.

While much about the history of modern humans is still under debate, there are a few things that most scientists agree on. For example, it is thought that the first hominids evolved about seven million years ago from a common ancestor with chimpanzees. The first hominin that could walk upright was probably Australopithecus afarensis, or the famous Lucy. Then Homo erectus appeared with similar body proportions to modern humans. This was the first human species known to have spread outside of Africa. After a period of development that is still intensely debated, our species, Homo sapiens, diverged from Neanderthals about 600,000 years ago. As Homo sapiens continued to spread around the world, Homo neanderthalensis became less common and diverse over time, before going extinct about 40,000 years ago.

It is generally stated that modern humans began to spread across the world from Africa. The Neanderthals were already in Europe and Asia at that time.


Until now it was thought that modern humans only lived in Europe around 45,000 years ago. Scientists base that on discovered human fossils and artifacts excavated in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. But a new find changes everything.


Researchers have come across an old, fossilized tooth in a cave in southern France. Although no DNA could be extracted from it, the tooth’s shape was compared to that of modern humans and Neanderthals. The team found that the single tooth bears striking resemblance to modern humans and looks significantly different from Neanderthal teeth. In addition, the tooth was hidden in an earth layer that is between 56,800 and 51,700 years old. Although a child’s tooth can show a lot of variation compared to an adult’s, Stringer believes that the tooth is the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens in this area. And that suggests, according to the researchers, that our ancestors colonized the European continent about ten thousand years earlier than thought.


If that has actually been the case, it will force us to rewrite the histories of both our species and that of the Neanderthals. Because it means that our ancestors and the Neanderthals lived together much longer than previously thought. It is very likely that modern humans and Neanderthals interacted during that period, although there is currently no concomitant genetic evidence to confirm this. We do know that when modern humans and Neanderthals ran into each other, they split the sheets. Traces of that intercourse can still be found in all non-African populations on Earth. About 2 percent of our genome contains a Neanderthal component.


However, the researchers do not believe that modern humans spent very long in the southern French caves. After a hiatus, Neanderthals returned, before giving way to modern humans again about 45,000 years ago. “Early modern humans probably spread around the Mediterranean and migrated to the Rhone Valley, where they may have lived for more than a thousand years before the Neanderthals finally returned to the caves,” Stringer says. “It suggests that modern humans tried to settle in Europe over and over before they actually succeeded.”


Whether the researchers’ conclusions are really correct will have to be studied further. “We only have one tooth right now,” Stringer says. “It’s a shame we don’t know more about these people. But along with strange stone tools previously discovered in the area, it may well be that modern humans were found in Western Europe quite early.”

Discovered stone tools—possibly arrowheads—that scientists haven’t been able to place until now. Now researchers say they may have been made by modern humans. Image: Ludovic Slimak, Laure Metz and Clément Zanolli

However, the full story has yet to be revealed. For example, the researchers do not yet fully understand how modern humans disappeared as suddenly as they came. Nevertheless, the team is convinced that it will be able to provide more clarity in the future. “The archaeological site offers clues that will allow us to discover the answers,” the researchers said.