Modern humans migrated into Europe in 3 waves, 'ambitious and provocative' new study suggests

Evidence of the earliest migration of sapiens in all Europe is found at Grotte Mandrin (the rock at the center of the picture) in Mediterranean France. (Image credit: Ludovic Slimak; (CC-BY 4.0))

It was long thought that modern humans first ventured into Europe about 42,000 years ago, but newly analyzed tools from the Stone Age have upended this idea. Now, evidence suggests that modern humans trekked into Europe in three waves between 54,000 and 42,000 years ago, a new study finds.

Our species, Homo sapiens, arose in Africa more than 300,000 years ago, and anatomically modern humans emerged at least 195,000 years ago. Evidence for the first waves of modern humans outside Africa dates back at least 194,000 years to Israel, and possibly 210,000 years to Greece.

For years, the oldest confirmed signs of modern humans in Europe were teeth about 42,000 years old that archaeologists had unearthed in Italy and Bulgaria. These ancient groups were likely Protoaurignacians — the earliest members of the Aurignacians, the first known hunter-gatherer culture in Europe.

However, a 2022 study revealed that a tooth found in the site of Grotte Mandrin in southern France's Rhône Valley suggested that modern humans lived there about 54,000 years ago, a 2022 study found. This suggested Europe was home to modern humans about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. 

In the 2022 study, scientists linked this fossil tooth with stone artifacts that scientists previously dubbed Neronian, after the nearby Grotte de Néron site. Neronian tools include tiny flint arrowheads or spearpoints and are unlike anything else found in Europe from that time.

Related: Prehistoric population once lived in Siberia, but mysteriously vanished, genetic study finds

Now, in a new study, an archaeologist argues that another wave of modern humans may have entered Europe between the 42,000-year-old Protoaurignacians and the 54,000-year-old Neronians. "It's an in-depth rewriting of the historical structure of [the] arrival of sapiens in the continent," study lead researcher Ludovic Slimak, an archaeologist at the University of Toulouse in France, told Live Science in an email. He detailed his ideas in a study published on Wednesday (May 3) in the journal PLOS One.

Stone Age evidence

Slimak focused on a group or "industry" of stone artifacts previously unearthed in the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean region that today includes Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Scientists have long thought that the Levant was a key gateway for modern humans migrating out of Africa.

When Slimak compared Neronian tools from Grotte Mandrin with the industry from about the same time from a site known as Ksar Akil in Lebanon, he found notable similarities. This suggested both groups were one and the same, with the Levantine group expanding into Europe over time. The much younger Protoaurignacian artifacts also have very similar counterparts in the Levant from a culture known as the Ahmarian, Slimak noted. 

"I buil[t] a bridge between Europe and the East Mediterranean populations during the early migrations of sapiens in the continent," Slimak said.

In addition, Slimak found thousands of modern human flint artifacts from the Levant that existed in the period known as the Early Upper Paleolithic, between the Ksar Akil and the Ahmarian ones. This led him to look for possible modern human counterparts of these artifacts in Europe.

Stone artifacts from a European industry known as the Châtelperronian highly resemble modern human artifacts seen in the Early Upper Paleolithic of the Levant. In addition, Châtelperronian items date to about 45,000 years ago, or between those of the Neronians and the Protoaurignacians. However, scientists had often thought Châtelperronians were Neanderthals.

Slimak now argues the Châtelperronians were actually a second wave of modern humans into Europe. "We have here, and for the first time, a serious candidate for a non-Neanderthalian origin of these industries," Slimak said. 

This new model of modern human settlement of Europe is "ambitious and provocative," Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who did not take part in the new study, told Live Science in an email. "Evidence has been building for a while that there were several early dispersals of Homo sapiens into Europe before the well-attested Aurignacian-associated one about 42,000 years ago."

Future research can help confirm or disprove this new idea. "I see this paper generating a number of research projects to support or refute it," Christian Tryon, a Paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Connecticut who helped translate the new study, told Live Science in an email. "People now need to look at some of the archaeological sites here with a critical eye to see if they see the same kinds of technical details reported by Slimak. This is the start of a long process, I suspect."

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.
  • bgaineshunter1
    Doesn't L3 mtDNA point towards a route through Northern Africa and up through Spain?
  • Pianki
    Other than to get a modern day picture in the mind, there was no Israel back then.
  • Pianki
    Humanoids would have walked on dry land rather than taking to the sea. Boat building was not an option at that stage of development.
  • Hartmann352
    The archaeological record of Paleolithic Europe leaves many open questions regarding the nature of the arrival of modern humans into the region and the nature of how these newcomers interacted with the resident Neanderthal populations. In this study, Slimak compared records of stone tool technology across western Eurasia to document the sequence of early human activity in the region.

    This study primarily focused on comparative analysis of tens of thousands of stone tools from two sites: Ksar Akil in Lebanon and Grotte Mandrin in France, that recently revealed the earliest Homo sapiens migration in Europe dating to 54,000 years old. The study analyzed their precise technical connections with the earliest modern technologies in the continent. The author identifies a similar sequence of three technological phases in both regions, suggesting three distinct waves of migration of Homo sapiens across Europe.

    The paper provides evidence for three distinct waves of early migration of Sapiens in Europe from the East Mediterranean coast. The image shows three technical traditions of each of these Sapiens migrations. Phase 1, around the 54th millennium, is represented by the Neronian/Initial Upper Paleolithic; phase 2 by the Châtelperronian/Early Upper Paleolithic around the 45th millennium, and phase 3 by the Protoaurignacian/Southern Early Ahmarian around the 42nd millennium. Credit: Ludovic Slimak, CC-BY 4.0 (
    These trans-Mediterranean technological connections allow for a reinterpretation of the pattern of human arrival in Europe and its precise relations with the Levantine region. Further examination of these apparent phases of human migration will establish a clearer picture of the sequence of events as Homo sapiens spread across the region and, in doing so, gradually replaced Neanderthals.

    Slimak adds, "Until 2022, it was believed that Homo sapiens had reached Europe between the 42nd and 45th millennium. The study shows that this first sapiens migration would actually be the last of three major migratory waves to the continent, profoundly rewriting what was thought to be known about the origin of sapiens in Europe. Chatelperronian culture, one of the first modern traditions in western Europe and since then attributed to Neanderthals, should in fact signal the second wave of Homo sapiens migration in Europe, impacting deeply our understanding of the cultural organization of the last Neanderthals."

    NatureLate Pleistocene climate drivers of early human migrationAxel Timmermann &
    Tobias Friedrich On the basis of fossil and archaeological data it has been hypothesized that the exodus of Homo sapiens out of Africa and into Eurasia between ~50–120 thousand years ago occurred in several orbitally paced migration episodes1,2,3,4. Crossing vegetated pluvial corridors from northeastern Africa into the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant and expanding further into Eurasia, Australia and the Americas, early H. sapiens experienced massive time-varying climate and sea level conditions on a variety of timescales. Hitherto it has remained difficult to quantify the effect of glacial- and millennial-scale climate variability on early human dispersal and evolution. Here we present results from a numerical human dispersal model, which is forced by spatiotemporal estimates of climate and sea level changes over the past 125 thousand years. The model simulates the overall dispersal of H. sapiens in close agreement with archaeological and fossil data and features prominent glacial migration waves across the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant region around 106–94, 89–73, 59–47 and 45–29 thousand years ago. The findings document that orbital-scale global climate swings played a key role in shaping Late Pleistocene global population distributions, whereas millennial-scale abrupt climate changes, associated with Dansgaard–Oeschger events, had a more limited regional effect.

    Ancient Genomes Point to Three Waves of Human Migration Into Southeast AsiaMay 17, 2018 | staff reporter
    NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – According to a new analysis of ancient genomes from Southeast Asia, three waves of human migration produced the genetic landscape of the region.
    While the humid environment there has made it difficult to analyze ancient DNA, an international team of researchers was able to isolate and analyze the genomes of 18 individuals dating back between 1,700 years and 4,100 years ago from what is now Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia.

    As they reported today in Science, the researchers found that hunter-gatherers first arrived in Southeast Asia about 45,000 years ago, and farmers from China arrived during the Neolithic Period about 4,500 years ago, followed by Bronze Age migrations from China about 3,000 years ago. This, the researchers noted, mirrors migrations in Europe.

    "A very important part of the world is now accessible for ancient DNA analysis," first author and Harvard Medical School postdoctoral fellow Mark Lipson said in a statement. "It opens a window into the genetic origins of the people who lived there in the past and those who live there now."
    He and his colleagues analyzed samples obtained from five sites in Southeast Asia: a Neolithic sample from Man Bac in Vietnam, a Bronze Age sample from Nui Nap in Vietnam, a Late Neolithic/Bronze Age sample from Oakaie in Myanmar, a Late Neolithic sample from Ban Chiang in Thailand, and an Iron Age sample from Vat Komnou in Cambodia. In all, they screened 350 next-generation sequencing libraries generated from bone samples from 146 different individuals.

    In an initial principal components analysis, the researches compared their samples to set of diverse modern-day non-Africans and found that most of the ancient samples clustered with present-day Chinese and Vietnamese individuals. A few of the samples, the researchers noted, skewed slightly more toward Papuans and to the Onge people of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

    When they then compared the ancient individuals to only modern Southeast Asian individuals, they found that the Man Bac, Ban Chiang, and Vat Komnou samples clustered most closely with modern-day Austroasiatic speakers, while the Nui Nap samples fell closer to modern Vietnamese and Dai individuals, and the Oakaie samples grouped near modern Myanmar and Sino-Tibetan speakers' samples.

    Similarly, outgroup f3-statistic analyses found the Man Bac, Ban Chiang, and Vat Komnou shared the most alleles with modern Austroasiatic speakers, while the Nui Nap shared the most alleles with Austronesian speakers like the Dai and Kinh and the Oakaie with Sino-Tibetan speakers.
    Lipson and his colleagues then constructed admixture graph models to test the relationships between their ancient samples and modern-day groups. Through this, they found the ancient Man Bac and present-day Nicobarese and Mlabri have ancestry stemming from a Southeast Asian farmer-related source as well as from a deeply diverging eastern Eurasian source. A model of these ancestry events suggested it involved a shared ancestral admixture event, followed by the divergence of the Man Bac from present-day Austroasiatic speakers, and a wave of deep ancestry into the Nicobarese.

    Similarly, they found western Indonesians had ancestry stemming from Austronesian-, Austroasiatic-, and Papuan-related sources, while the Juang of eastern India had ancestry from a western Eurasian, deep eastern Eurasian, and Austroasiatic clades*.

    From this, the researchers pieced together a scenario in which early Austroasiatic-speaking migrants from southern China brought farming to mainland Southeast Asia during the Neolithic where they mixed with local hunter-gatherers. Then, during the Bronze Age, another wave of migrants arrived in Myanmar from China about 3,000 years ago, reaching Vietnam about 2,000 years ago and Thailand about 1,000 years ago.

    This pattern of genetic changes accompanying cultural shifts resembles what has reported to have occurred in Europe, the researchers noted, with one exception: Ancestral diversity in Europe has been lost over time, while it remains in Southeast Asia.

    "People who are nearly direct descendants of each of the three source populations are still living in the region today, including people with significant hunter-gatherer ancestry who live in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Andaman Islands," Harvard's David Reich, a co-senior author of the paper, added. "Whereas in Europe, no one living today has more than a small fraction of ancestry from the European hunter-gatherers."

    * clade -
    A grouping of organisms made on the basis of their presumed evolutionary history, consisting of a common ancestor and all of its descendants.
    A group of animals or other organisms derived from a common ancestor species.
    A higher level grouping of a genetic haplogroup.See:
    The European continent was subject to three major migrations of peoples during the Holocene: the northwestward movement of Anatolian farmer populations during the Neolithic and the westward movement of Yamnaya steppe peoples during the Bronze Age. These movements changed the genetic composition of the continent’s inhabitants. The Holocene was also characterized by major changes in vegetation composition, which altered the environment occupied by the original hunter-gatherer populations.