Signs of a human species that is no longer alive were found in a cave in Poland. Stone tools from the Stone Age that were found in a cave in Poland 50 years ago have just been found to be among the oldest ever found in the area.
The tools found in Maopolska’s Tunel Wielki cave are between 450 000 and 550 000 years old. Scientists may be able to learn more about the people who made them and how they moved around and lived in Central Europe in the past by using this method.
For example, the time frame suggests that the tools were made by Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct human species that is usually thought to be the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans (us). And it means that people lived there at a time when the harsh climate of Central Europe would have required a lot of physical and cultural changes.
Archaeologist Magorzata Kot of the University of Warsaw in Poland told Science in Poland, “This is one of the most interesting parts of the analysis for us.”
“We can look at the limits of Homo heidelbergensis’s chances of survival and see how he adapted to these tough circumstances.”
In the 1960s, archaeologists dug in Tunel Wielki’s cave. In 2016, they went back to the site. Material that was found in layers was dated to the Holocene, which happened about 11,700 years ago, and the Middle Paleolithic, which happened up to 40,000 years ago.
But Claudio Berto, an archaeologist at the University of Warsaw, thought the dates didn’t match up with what he saw. He decided that the animal bones found at the site were almost certainly older than 40,000 years.
So, Kot and her team went back to the cave in 2018. They reopened and widened one of the trenches, looking carefully at the different layers of dirt and bones that had built up over the years and collecting more bones to study.
They found that the upper layers did have the bones of animals that lived during the Late Pleistocene and the Holocene. But it was clear that the layer at the bottom was older. It had the bones of three animals that lived 500,000 years ago: the European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis), the Mosbach wolf (Canis mosbachensis), which is the ancestor of modern grey wolves, and Deninger’s bear (Ursus deningeri).
The layer with the bones also had evidence of flint knapping, such as flint flakes, which are the “blanks” from which other tools can be made, and the cores from which they are struck. Some of the tools were finished, like knives.
“Since these things come from the same layer as the bones, it means they are about the same age,” said Kot. “In 2018, excavations in the cave confirmed that this was the case. They proved that the layers are set up the way scientists said they were a half-century ago. We also found more waste from the factory and animal bones.”
Before, she said, only two places in Poland were known to have tools from around the same time: Trzebnica and Rusko. But the things found in the Tunel Wielki cave are different. Several archaeological sites in the area show signs that people used to live there, but all of them are outside.
Kot says it is very strange that artefacts from that time were found in a cave.
“We were surprised that people in this area lived in caves 500,000 years ago because caves aren’t the best places to camp,” she said.
“That wouldn’t happen if it was wet and cold. On the other hand, a cave is a shelter that is made by nature. It’s a closed space that makes you feel safe. We found signs that the people who lived there may have used fire, which probably helped them control these dark, damp places.”
The way the flint found in the cave was chipped was also interesting. This is the simplest method that ancient people used to make tools. At the time the tools were made, it was rarely used as the main method. Instead, it was used on low-quality materials or when flint was hard to find.
Isernia La Pineta in Italy was the only other place that used this method as the main one. The Tunel Wielki flint was not of low quality, and it was not hard to get because it was found nearby. This was also true for Isernia La Pineta. If archaeologists could find a second site with the same features, it might help them figure out why ancient people used that technique.
Next, the team plans to go back to the cave to look for Homo heidelbergensis bones.