The discovery of a 55,000-year-old partial skull in Northern Israel provides new insights into the migration of modern humans out of Africa. The rare find is reported in the journal Nature this week by an international team of Israeli, North American and European researchers.
A key event in human evolution was the expansion of modern humans of African origin across Eurasia, replacing all other forms of hominin (humans and their predecessors), around 40,000-60,000 years ago. However, due to the scarcity of human fossils from this period, these ancestors of all present-day non-African modern populations have largely remained a mystery.
Now, researchers describe a partial skull that dates to around 55,000, which was found at Manot Cave in Israel’s Western Galilee. The Manot Cave was discovered in 2008 during construction activities that damaged its roof. Rock falls and active stalagmites had apparently blocked the initial entrance to the cave for at least 15,000 years. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Cave Research Centre conducted an initial survey of the cave and reported the findings of archaeological remains.
Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University led the anthropological study of the skull, and the excavation together with archaeologists Dr. Ofer Marder of Ben-Gurion University, and Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The skull has a distinctive “bun”-shaped occipital region at the back. In this way its shape resembles modern African and European skulls, but differs from other anatomically modern humans from the Levant. This suggests that the Manot people could be closely related to the first modern humans that later colonized Europe.
The specimen also provides evidence that both modern humans and Neanderthals inhabited the southern Levant during the late Pleistocene, close in time to the likely interbreeding event between modern humans and Neanderthals.
Neanderthals and humans
This finding represents the first fossil evidence from the critical period when genetic and archaeological models predict that African modern humans successfully migrated out of Africa and colonized Eurasia. It also represents the first fossil evidence that during the late Middle Palaeolithic, the Levant was occupied not only by Neanderthals but also by modern humans.
The researchers suggest that the population from which this skull is derived had recently migrated out of Africa and established itself in the Levantine corridor during a time span that was favourable for human migration, due to warmer and wetter climatic events over the Northern Sahara and the Mediterranean.
The research appears in the journal Nature under the title “Levantine cranium from Manot Cave (Israel) foreshadows the first European modern humans” (DOI 10.1038/nature14134).