A cave in Greece has been found to contain 14 specimens of child and adult human remains, providing archaeologists with key insights into the lives and geographical distribution of ancient hominins.
In an interview with LiveScience's Charles Choi, paleoanthropologist Katerina Harvati explains that Greece is a prime location for investigating the dispersal of early modern humans and earlier hominins – like neanderthals – throughout Europe, following a mass exodus from Africa. "It also lies at the heart of one of the three Mediterranean peninsulae of Europe, which acted as refugia for plant and animal species, including human populations, during glacial times," she explains, "that is, areas where species and populations were able to survive during the worst climatic deteriorations."
The archaeological deposits of the cave date back to between about 39,000 and 100,000 years ago to the Middle Paleolithic period. During the height of the ice age, the area still possessed a mild climate and supported a wide range of wildlife... In the cave, the researchers found tools such as scrapers made of flint, quartz and seashells. The stone tools were all shaped, or knapped, in a way typical of Neanderthal artifacts.
Now, the scientists reveal they discovered 14 specimens of child and adult human remains in the cave, including teeth, a small fragment of skull, a vertebra, and leg and foot bones with bite and gnaw marks on them. The teeth strongly appear to be Neanderthal, and judging by marks on the teeth, the ancient people apparently had a diet of meat and diverse plants.
The finding may offer important clues about one of the first instances when modern humans crossed paths with neanderthals, making it a significant addition to a growing body of evidence that suggests neanderthals and humans not only interacted with one another, but interbred. By cross-referencing physical discoveries like this one with genetic analyses, researchers are painting an ever-clearer picture of hominin history.
Check out more great coverage of Harvati's team's excavation of the cave – which has gone on for more than a decade – over at LiveScience.