Andra Meneganzin is a Ph.D. candidate in Biosciences at the Department of Biology of the University of Padova (Italy), attending the specialized curriculum in “Evolution, Ecology and Conservation”. Her main interests revolve around the philosophy of Middle and Late Pleistocene paleoanthropology and archaeology. More specifically, her research focuses on modern human origins, the evolution of behavioural and cognitive complexity, archaic admixture, hominin taxic diversity, explanations and dynamics of Neanderthal extinction.
She is also interested in the communication and public understanding of evolution.
Peştera cu Oase, human hybrids and Neanderthal evolution
Since the discovery of a robust mandible in 2002 at Peştera cu Oase (Southwestern Romania), the site has not ceased to be a key evidential source in the debate on modern human dispersals across Europe and interactions with the Neanderthals. In this paper, I argue that the importance of the Peştera cu Oase findings resides in two main aspects: first, opening up scenarios of admixture between regional Homo sapiens and Neanderthals before the advent of the paleogenomic era, later confirmed by aDNA data; and second, along with recently sequenced genomes and archaeological evidence, feeding into a complex scenario of H. sapiens failed expansions and coexistence with Neanderthals in Europe (Hajdinjak et al. 2021). Until the last decade, the problem of assessing the extent to which modern and “archaic” hominins interacted could draw exclusively from fossil and archaeological evidence, making it a terrain of fierce debates due to conflicting interpretations of ambiguous remains. However, these fields have generated a fundamental body of knowledge on Neanderthals, acting as a pathfinder for subsequent discoveries and raising predictions that could be tested with future technology. I’ll argue that an emblematic case in this sense is the Oase1 modern human mandible (Trinkhaus et al. 2003), dated ca 37-42 kyr-old, which has long been described as carrying morphological traits consistent with Neanderthal admixture. More than a decade later, after various failed attempts, the sequencing of Oase1 revealed the highest levels of Neanderthal ancestry ever found to date in a modern human (6-9%), offering an evolutionary snapshot 4 to 6 generations apart from the introgression event (Fu et al 2015). Even if it did not substantially contribute to later Europeans, Oase1 provided evidence for admixture not limited to the ancestors of present-day people leaving Africa, but taking place also in recent times in Europe, contributing to building consensus on the reality of interbreeding in recent human evolution. However, I’ll argue that the relevance of the Oase site today has not been extinguished. Historical evidence goes through a process of constant recontextualization, in virtue of which richer theoretical and empirical regimes can put old data to work in new ways (Wylie 2017). This in part has already happened when new technical and analytical tools (aDNA extraction and sequencing) have been brought to bear on Oase fossil remains. However, today Oase is one among four early Homo sapiens sites that overlapped in time and spaces with the Neanderthals that show signs of archaic admixture, and with Bacho Kiro (Bulgaria) and Zlaty Kun (Czechia) it helps drawing a map of lost outposts of modern human expansion pulses. In the final part of the paper, I’ll discuss how this scenario of admixture and delayed takeover of the continent by H. sapiens offers the fundamental background against which the re-evaluation of Neanderthal material complexity, cognitive and symbolic lives need to be considered, framing our ability to investigate a lost and different way of being human.