Submitted and Published Papers

Insights into Neanderthal group sizes

19 October 2022 (Skov et al. Nature)

Dramatic new insights have been revealed into Neanderthal social group size through genomic analysis at the sites of Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov caves in the Siberian Altai. Of 13 individual Neanderthals analysed, we identified several that were related to one another – among them a father and his teenage daughter. DNA was successfully retrieved from 13 Neanderthals – 7 men and 6 women, of which 8 were adults and 5 were children and young adolescents. This is the largest number of people ever genetically sequenced in a single study in such detail. This provides a glimpse into the social organization of a Neandertal community that numbered between 10-20 people. Our team worked on new AMS dating of Neanderthal remains with single amino acid (hydroxyproline) dating, showing that the Okladnikov Neanderthals, previously dated to 29-38,000 BP were in fact more than 45,000 years in age.


A refined chronology for the Middle and early Upper Paleolithic sequence of Riparo Mochi (Liguria, Italy)

24 June 2022 (Frouin et al. Journal of Human Evolution)

New dates from the Riparo Mochi, Italy, reveal long Neanderthal occupation

The latest paper from Tom Higham’s PalaeoChron ERC grant, led by Marine Frouin and Katerina Douka,  provides new OSL dates from the key site of Mochi, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. We show that the earliest Homo sapiens arrived and replaced Neanderthals between 42.7 and 41.6 thousand years ago.

Modern human incursion into Neanderthal territories 54,000 years ago at Mandrin, France

9 February 2022 (Slimak et al. Science Advances)

Determining the extent of overlap between modern humans and other hominins in Eurasia, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, is fundamental to understanding the nature of their interactions and what led to the disappearance of archaic hominins. Apart from a possible sporadic pulse recorded in Greece during the Middle Pleistocene, the first settlements of modern humans in Europe have been constrained to ~45,000 to 43,000 years ago. Here, we report hominin fossils from Grotte Mandrin in France that reveal the earliest known presence of modern humans in Europe between 56,800 and 51,700 years ago. This early modern human incursion in the Rhône Valley is associated with technologies unknown in any industry of that age outside Africa or the Levant. Mandrin documents the first alternating occupation of Neanderthals and modern humans, with a modern human fossil and associated Neronian lithic industry found stratigraphically between layers containing Neanderthal remains associated with Mousterian industries.

The earliest Denisovans and their cultural adaptation

25 November 2021 (Brown et al. Nature Ecology and Evolution)

Since the initial identification of the Denisovans a decade ago, only a handful of their physical remains have been discovered. Here we analysed ~3,800 non-diagnostic bone fragments using collagen peptide mass fingerprinting to locate new hominin remains from Denisova Cave (Siberia, Russia). We identified five new hominin bones, four of which contained sufficient DNA for mitochondrial analysis. Three carry mitochondrial DNA of the Denisovan type and one was found to carry mtDNA of the Neanderthal type. The former come from the same archaeological layer near the base of the cave’s sequence and are the oldest securely dated evidence of Denisovans at 200 ka (thousand years ago) (205–192 ka at 68.2% or 217–187 ka at 95% probability). The stratigraphic context in which they were located contains a wealth of archaeological material in the form of lithics and faunal remains, allowing us to determine the material culture associated with these early hominins and explore their behavioural and environmental adaptations. The combination of bone collagen fingerprinting and genetic analyses has so far more-than-doubled the number of hominin bones at Denisova Cave and has expanded our understanding of Denisovan and Neanderthal interactions, as well as their archaeological signatures.

Reevaluating the timing of Neanderthal disappearance in Northwest Europe

23 March 2021 (Devièse et al. PNAS)

Elucidating when Neanderthal populations disappeared from Eurasia is a key question in paleoanthropology, and Belgium is one of the key regions for studying the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition. Previous radiocarbon dating placed the Spy Neanderthals among the latest surviving Neanderthals in Northwest Europe with reported dates as young as 23,880 ± 240 B.P. (OxA-8912). Questions were raised, however, regarding the reliability of these dates. Soil contamination and carbon-based conservation products are known to cause problems during the radiocarbon dating of bulk collagen samples. Employing a compound-specific approach that is today the most efficient in removing contamination and ancient genomic analysis, we demonstrate here that previous dates produced on Neanderthal specimens from Spy were inaccurately young by up to 10,000 y due to the presence of unremoved contamination. Our compound-specific radiocarbon dates on the Neanderthals from Spy and those from Engis and Fonds-de-Forêt demonstrate that they disappeared from Northwest Europe at 44,200 to 40,600 cal B.P. (at 95.4% probability), much earlier than previously suggested. Our data contribute significantly to refining models for Neanderthal disappearance in Europe and, more broadly, show that chronometric models regarding the appearance or disappearance of animal or hominin groups should be based only on radiocarbon dates obtained using robust pretreatment methods.

Denisovan ancestry and population history of early East Asians

30 October 2020 (Massiliani et al. Science)

We present analyses of the genome of a ~34,000-year-old hominin skull cap discovered in the Salkhit Valley in northeastern Mongolia. We show that this individual was a female member of a modern human population that, following the split between East and West Eurasians, experienced substantial gene flow from West Eurasians. Both she and a 40,000-year-old individual from Tianyuan outside Beijing carried genomic segments of Denisovan ancestry. These segments derive from the same Denisovan admixture event(s) that contributed to present-day mainland Asians but are distinct from the Denisovan DNA segments in present-day Papuans and Aboriginal Australians.

A prehistoric copper-production centre in central Thailand: its dating and wider implications

4 August 2020 (Higham et al. Antiquity)

The Khao Wong Prachan Valley of central Thailand is one of four known prehistoric loci of copper mining, smelting and casting in Southeast Asia. Many radiocarbon determinations from bronze-consumption sites in north-east Thailand date the earliest copper-base metallurgy there in the late second millennium BC. By applying kernel density estimation analysis to approximately 100 new AMS radiocarbon dates, the authors conclude that the valley’s first Neolithic millet farmers had settled there by c. 2000 BC, and initial copper mining and rudimentary smelting began in the late second millennium BC. This overlaps with the established dates for Southeast Asian metal-consumption sites, and provides an important new insight into the development of metallurgy in central Thailand and beyond.

The timing and effect of the earliest human arrivals in North America

22 July 2020 (Becerra-Valdivia and Higham, Nature)

The peopling of the Americas marks a major expansion of humans across the planet. However, questions regarding the timing and mechanisms of this dispersal remain, and the previously accepted model (termed ‘Clovis-first’)—suggesting that the first inhabitants of the Americas were linked with the Clovis tradition, a complex marked by distinctive fluted lithic points1—has been effectively refuted. Here we analyse chronometric data from 42 North American and Beringian archaeological sites using a Bayesian age modelling approach, and use the resulting chronological framework to elucidate spatiotemporal patterns of human dispersal. We then integrate these patterns with the available genetic and climatic evidence. The data obtained show that humans were probably present before, during and immediately after the Last Glacial Maximum (about 26.5–19 thousand years ago)2,3 but that more widespread occupation began during a period of abrupt warming, Greenland Interstadial 1 (about 14.7–12.9 thousand years before ad 2000)4. We also identify the near-synchronous commencement of Beringian, Clovis and Western Stemmed cultural traditions, and an overlap of each with the last dates for the appearance of 18 now-extinct faunal genera. Our analysis suggests that the widespread expansion of humans through North America was a key factor in the extinction of large terrestrial mammals.

A refined chronology for the Gravettian sequence of Abri Pataud

9 March 2020 (Douka et al. Journal of Human Evolution)

Abri Pataud (France) is the type site in studies focusing on the appearance of modern humans and the development of classic Upper Paleolithic technocomplexes in Europe. It contains important evidence of successful adaptation strategies of modern humans to new territories and in response to sharply changing climatic conditions that characterized Marine Isotope Stages 3 and 2. Despite being for decades one of the best excavated and most studied Paleolithic sites, the chronology of Abri Pataud has lacked precision and revealed large discrepancies. The chronology of the lowermost part of the sequence (Levels 14–5) was refined in 2011 with the publication of 32 new radiocarbon determinations, mainly from the Aurignacian levels. In contrast, the Gravettian levels (Levels 5–2) remained poorly dated until now. Here, we present 18 new radiocarbon dates on cut-marked animal bones from the Gravettian part of the site, which complete the dating of this important sequence. The determinations are analyzed using Bayesian statistical modeling, and the results allow us to place the start of the Gravettian at the site between ∼33,000 and 32,000 cal BP (∼29,000–28,000 BP). We discuss the succession of the Gravettian facies across the sequence (Bayacian, Noaillian, Rayssian), as well as the likely duration of each archaeological level. With a total of more than 50 radiocarbon determinations, Abri Pataud offers secure information for the appearance and development of the technocomplexes linked with early modern humans and their establishment in western Europe. Based on published genetic data, it appears that it is the Gravettian hunter-gatherers and subsequent human groups, rather than the earlier Aurignacian and pre-Aurignacian groups, that contributed to the genetic signature of later and living Europeans. Hence, elucidating the precise timing of the Gravettian appearance has broad implications in our understanding of late human evolution across Europe.

Compound-specific radiocarbon dating and mitochondrial DNA analysis of the Pleistocene hominin from Salkhit Mongolia

30 January 2019 (Devièse et al. Nature Comms.)

A skullcap found in the Salkhit Valley in northeast Mongolia is, to our knowledge, the only Pleistocene hominin fossil found in the country. It was initially described as an individual with possible archaic affinities, but its ancestry has been debated since the discovery. Here, we determine the age of the Salkhit skull by compound-specific radiocarbon dating of hydroxyproline to 34,950–33,900 Cal. BP (at 95% probability), placing the Salkhit individual in the Early Upper Paleolithic period. We reconstruct the complete mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) of the specimen. It falls within a group of modern human mtDNAs (haplogroup N) that is widespread in Eurasia today. The results now place the specimen into its proper chronometric and biological context and allow us to begin integrating it with other evidence for the human occupation of this region during the Paleolithic, as well as wider Pleistocene sequences across Eurasia.

Age estimates for hominin fossils and the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic at Denisova Cave

30 January 2019 (Douka et al. Nature)

Denisova Cave in the Siberian Altai (Russia) is a key site for understanding the complex relationships between hominin groups that inhabited Eurasia in the Middle and Late Pleistocene epoch. DNA sequenced from human remains found at this site has revealed the presence of a hitherto unknown hominin group, the Denisovans1,2, and high-coverage genomes from both Neanderthal and Denisovan fossils provide evidence for admixture between these two populations3. Determining the age of these fossils is important if we are to understand the nature of hominin interaction, and aspects of their cultural and subsistence adaptations. Here we present 50 radiocarbon determinations from the late Middle and Upper Palaeolithic layers of the site. We also report three direct dates for hominin fragments and obtain a mitochondrial DNA sequence for one of them. We apply a Bayesian age modelling approach that combines chronometric (radiocarbon, uranium series and optical ages), stratigraphic and genetic data to calculate probabilistically the age of the human fossils at the site. Our modelled estimate for the age of the oldest Denisovan fossil suggests that this group was present at the site as early as 195,000 years ago (at 95.4% probability). All Neanderthal fossils—as well as Denisova 11, the daughter of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan4—date to between 80,000 and 140,000 years ago. The youngest Denisovan dates to 52,000–76,000 years ago. Direct radiocarbon dating of Upper Palaeolithic tooth pendants and bone points yielded the earliest evidence for the production of these artefacts in northern Eurasia, between 43,000 and 49,000 calibrated years before present (taken as ad 1950). On the basis of current archaeological evidence, it may be assumed that these artefacts are associated with the Denisovan population. It is not currently possible to determine whether anatomically modern humans were involved in their production, as modern-human fossil and genetic evidence of such antiquity has not yet been identified in the Altai region.