Modern humans first arrived in westernmost Europe 5,000 years earlier than was previously believed — and may have overlapped with Neanderthals — a study found.
Archaeologists digging in the Lapa do Picareiro cave of central Portugal's Atlantic coast have unearthed stone tools characteristic of modern humans.
The finds — which date back to around 41,000–38,000 years ago — link the cave to other sites across Eurasia and the Russian plain that have yielded similar tools.
This supports a rapid westward spread of modern humans across Eurasia within a few thousand years of their first appearance in south-eastern Europe, the team said.
The discovery, they added, has 'important ramifications' for understanding the possibility of interactions between modern humans and Neanderthals in the region.
It may also help shine a light on the ultimate disappearance of the Neanderthals.
Modern humans first arrived in westernmost Europe 5,000 years earlier than was previously believed — and may have overlapped with Neanderthals — a study found. Archaeologists digging in the Lapa do Picareiro cave of central Portugal's Atlantic coast have unearthed stone tools, pictured, that are characteristic of modern humans
'The question whether the last surviving Neanderthals in Europe [were] replaced or assimilated by incoming modern humans is a long-standing, unsolved issue,' said paper author Lukas Friedl of the University of West Bohemia, in the Czech Republic.
'The early dates for Aurignacian stone tools at Picareiro likely rule out the possibility that modern humans arrived into the land long-devoid of Neanderthals — and that by itself is exciting,' he added.
Aurignacian stone tools are a type of technology definitively associated with the activities of early modern humans in Europe.
Until now, the oldest evidence for modern humans south of Spain's Ebro River came from Bajondillo, a cave site on the southern coast.
'Bajondillo offered tantalising but controversial evidence that modern humans were in the area earlier than we thought,' said paper author and anthropologist Jonathan Haws of the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
'The evidence in our report definitely supports the Bajondillo implications for an early modern human arrival, but it's still not clear how they got here.'
'People likely migrated along east-west flowing rivers in the interior, but a coastal route is still possible,' he concluded.
'The spread of anatomically modern humans across Europe many thousands of years ago is central to our understanding of where we came from as a now-global species,' commented US National Science Foundation archaeologist John Yellen.
'This discovery offers significant new evidence that will help shape future research investigating when and where anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe and what interactions they may have had with Neanderthals.'
The finds — which date back to around 41,000–38,000 years ago — link the cave, pictured, to other sites across Eurasia and the Russian plain that have yielded similar tools
Having been the subject to excavations and study for the last quarter-century, the Lapa do Picareiro cave has produced a record of human occupation going back around 50,000 years.
Researchers have extracted from the site rich archaeological deposits — including not only stone tools but also thousands of animal bones that show signs of having been involved in hunting, butchery and cooking activities.
Ancient humans would have broken bones apart to extract their marrow — which would have been valued as a nutritious food.
Dating the bones with accelerator mass spectrometry, the team have