The Early Aurignacian Dispersal of Modern Humans into Westernmost Eurasia

Departmental News

Posted:  Sep 29, 2020 - 10:00am

The University of New Mexico Ph.D. candidate Milena Carvalho was with a team of archaeologists excavating a site in Portugal when she found an archaeological “smoking gun” that, along with the team’s other finds of stone tools, shows modern humans arrived in the westernmost part of Europe about 5,000 years earlier than previously known. The report of their discovery, The Early Aurignacian Dispersal of Modern Humans into Westernmost Eurasia, was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 

The question of whether the last surviving Neanderthals in Europe have been replaced or assimilated by incoming modern humans is a long-standing, unsolved issue in paleoanthropology. The early dates for Aurignacian stone tools at Picareiro likely rule out the possibility that modern humans arrived in the land long devoid of Neanderthals. If the two groups overlapped for some time in the highlands of Atlantic Portugal, they may have maintained contacts between each other and exchanged not only technology and tools, but also mates. This could explain why many Europeans have Neanderthal genes.

“The ‘smoking gun’ stone tools that made our team realize we just discovered something big are a piece called a carinated core as well as the products of knapping this type of core, also known as bladelets,” Carvalho said. This type of stone tool technology (that has only been found in modern human contexts in Iberia) is described as carinated due to how prehistoric humans knapped stone to produce small bladelets. This resulted in a piece of stone with the negative scars of the small bladelets that were knapped off, also known as a core.

“The article details the discovery of the stone tools typically associated with modern humans in central Portugal about 5,000 years before we thought,” Carvalho said. By 38.1 k calibrated radiocarbon years (41,000-38,000 years ago) before present, modern humans were already in the peninsula and may have overlapped with Neanderthals, meaning that both populations may have lived concurrently. Lapa do Picareiro, the site where these stone tools were unearthed, is one of two sites on the Iberian Peninsula with evidence of an early modern human presence. Read more

Watch the KRQE-13 Interview with Milena