Humans first arrived in Europe during a “warm spell” around 50,000 years ago, according to a study of pollen.
Researchers compared Pleistocene period vegetation communities around Lake Baikal in the Russian province of Siberia to the oldest archaeological traces of Homo sapiens in the region.
They have used the “remarkable evidence” to piece together a compelling story from 45,000 to 50,000 years ago with new detail of how the first humans migrated across Europe and Asia.
The new pollen data, published in the journal Science Advances suggests warming temperatures supported forests that expanded into Siberia and allowed early human migration there, at roughly the same time as more and western areas of Eurasia.
Study co-author Professor Ted Goebel, of the University of Kansas in the United States, said: “This research addresses long-standing debates regarding the environmental conditions that early Homo sapiens faced during their migration into Europe and Asia around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
“It provides critical insights into environmental conditions at Lake Baikal, using pollen records to reveal surprising warmth during this period.”
He said the pollen data suggests that the dispersal of people happened during some of the highest temperatures in the late Pleistocene, which also would have featured higher humidity.
The ancient pollen record shows coniferous forests and grasslands characterized the region, able to support foraging and hunting by humans.
Goebel says the environmental data, combined with archaeological evidence, tell a new story.
He said: “This contradicts some recent archaeological perspectives in Europe.
“The key factor here is accurate dating, not just of human fossils and animal bones associated with the archaeology of these people, but also of environmental records, including from pollen.
“What we have presented is a robust chronology of environmental changes in Lake Baikal during this time period, complemented by a well-dated archaeological record of Homo sapiens’ presence in the region.”
While the pollen analysis was carried out in Japan, Goebel and Professor Masami Izuho, of Tokyo Metropolitan University, tied the pollen data to important evidence in the archaeological record of early human migration.
Goebel says the emergence of full-fledged Homo sapiens in the archaeological record corresponds to changes in culture and behavior.
He said early modern humans of that period were making stone tools on long, slender blades, working bone, antler and ivory to craft tools – including some of the first bone needles with carved eyelets for sewing and early bone and antler spear points.
Goebel said: “Some of us argue that as the anatomical changes were occurring, as evidenced by the fossil record, there was a simultaneous shift in behavior and cognition.
“These early humans were becoming more creative, innovative and adaptable. This is when we start to observe significant changes in the archaeological record, such as cave paintings.
“We also find mobile art, like the early carvings known as Venus figurines. In Central Europe, there’s even an ivory sculpture dating back to this early period, depicting a lion-headed man.
“It’s not just replicating nature; it’s about creative expression, inventing new things, exploring new places.”
He said at least one human bone has been found in the region that dates to the era.
Goebel said: “There is one human fossil from Siberia, although not from Lake Baikal but farther west, at a place called Ust’-Ishim.
“Morphologically, it is human, but more importantly, it’s exceptionally well-preserved.
“It has been directly radiocarbon-dated and has yielded ancient DNA, confirming it as a representative of modern Homo sapiens, distinct from Neanderthals or Denisovans, or other pre-modern archaic humans.”
Goebel says the earliest human inhabitants of the area would probably have lived in extended nuclear families or small bands, as they seem to have done in other areas of Eurasia.
But because so much archaeological evidence is degraded, it’s difficult to know with certainty.
Goebel added: “At Ust’-Ishim in Siberia, we have evidence of a fully modern human co-existing with the sites we’ve been discussing.
“However, Ust’-Ishim was an isolated discovery, found by geologists eroding from a riverbank.
“We lack information about its archaeological context, whether it was part of a settlement or simply a solitary bone washed downstream.
“Consequently, linking that single individual to the archaeological sites in the Baikal region is tenuous – do they represent the same population? We think so, but definitely need more evidence.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker