Analysis of Recovered Bones Has Changed Our Understanding of Ancient Humans in Europe

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Three studies were published recently detailing the numerous discoveries made from analyzing bones found deep underground in Germany. These discoveries led researchers to update multiple assumptions previously held about ancient human history and development.

The original discovery

Researchers found the bones buried several meters underground in a cave system near Ranis, a town in eastern Germany. The cave had first been discovered and partially excavated in the 1930s, though researchers at the time did not realize it contained human remains.

Digging deeper

Between 2016 and 2022, the team of researchers pored over the cave, “hoping that some deposits were left from the 1930s excavation,” one researcher stated. “We were fortunate to find a 1.7-meter thick rock the previous excavators did not get past. After removing that rock by hand, we finally … found human fossils.”


The human remains were not immediately identified, as they were mixed in with hundreds of bone fragments from other animals, including reindeer, cave bears, woolly rhinos, and horses. When analyzed, the remains revealed that humans had been living in the area as far back as 45,000 years ago.

Updating knowledge

“Until recently,” the leader of the research team explained, “it was thought that resilience to cold-climate conditions did not appear until several thousand years later, so this is a fascinating and surprising result.” At the time, the area in which the bones were found would have had a frigid tundra climate like that of modern-day Siberia.

Changing understanding

“This fundamentally changes our previous knowledge about the period,” one researcher explained. “Homo sapiens reached northwestern Europe long before [the] Neanderthal disappearance in southwestern Europe.”

Living together

As a result, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis — known as Neanderthals — may have lived among each other for thousands of years. Most humans alive today have traces of Neanderthal DNA, a legacy of interbreeding between the two groups.

Distinguishing the two

Proteins taken from excavated bone fragments allowed researchers to separate the human remains from animal ones, but didn’t distinguish between the two groups of hominins. To do that, researchers extracted fragments of DNA from 13 fossils confirmed to be from humans. 

Close relationships

“Interestingly, several fragments shared the same mitochondrial DNA — even fragments from different excavations,” one researcher said. “This indicates that the fragments belonged to the same individual or were maternal relatives, linking these new finds with the ones from decades ago.”

The old story

The stone tools found at the site were previously thought to have been made by Neanderthals. Their style, which is identifiable by a telltale leaflike shape, is referred to by archeologists as Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician, or LRJ.


LRJ tools have been found all over Europe, from Poland to the UK. They have been known about for decades, and were found during the 1930s excavation of the cave near Ranis.

The new story

However, the “stone artifacts that were thought to be produced by Neanderthals were, in fact, part of the early Homo sapiens toolkit,” one researcher confirmed. 

Closer than we think

According to the Smithsonian, Neanderthals contributed up to 4% of the genomes of non-African modern humans, with the specific amount dependent on where an individual’s ancestors lived. Up to 9% of the DNA of humans living about 40,000 years ago was Neanderthal.

Back and forth

Because no Neanderthal fossils have been found in Africa, it was once thought that African modern humans would share no DNA with Neanderthals. However, in 2020 it was discovered that African Homo sapiens did, in fact, have traces of Neanderthal DNA, meaning there was gene flow back and forth between Europe and Africa.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.