Scientists have found an ancient human skull in a cave in western Galilee, northern Israel, which suggests that modern humans migrated from Africa to Europe and mated with Neanderthals some 55,000 years ago, leading to the birth of modern humanity that colonized the present world today. The paleontologists found a braincase that must have belonged […]
Scientists have found an ancient human skull in a cave in western Galilee, northern Israel, which suggests that modern humans migrated from Africa to Europe and mated with Neanderthals some 55,000 years ago, leading to the birth of modern humanity that colonized the present world today.
The paleontologists found a braincase that must have belonged to a woman who lived and died in the region about 55,000 years ago, where sexual intimacy between humans and Neanderthals led to the placement and spread of modern humans in the region some 55,000 years ago.
It is believed that Homo sapiens migrated from Africa at least 60,000 years ago, but the harsh climate in parts of Europe at the time hampered their spread across much of the continent until about 45,000 years ago. The skull reveals that humans reached the Levant and descended population led to the colonization of Europe when the frozen climate abated and made the territory more habitable.
“It’s amazing. This is the first specimen we have that connects Africa to Europe,” said Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University. The skull has its face and jaws missing, and the braincase resembles the European Cro-Magnons, but retains some African features too.
The skull was found in a rocky shelf in the side chamber of the enormous Manot cave that was discovered by chance when a bulldozer broke through the roof while cutting a sewer trench for a nearby village. Paleontologists eventually used rope coiled around the body to lower themselves through the hole torn in the ceiling, they found the cave opened up more than 20 metres deep, 50 metres wide and 100 metres long. The original entrance to the cave had collapsed about 30,000 years ago, sealing off the contents.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes. We immediately realized it was a prehistoric cave and that it had been inhabited for a very long time. Because the entrance had collapsed so long ago, it had been frozen in time. Nobody had been inside for 30,000 years,” said Hershkovitz. “There is a huge central cave and several beautiful side chambers. In one side chamber, the skull was lying there on top of a rocky shelf. It was there waiting for us. We just had to pick it up,” he added.
The partial skull is the oldest of the human remains recovered from the cave. How it came to be perched on a shelf in a side chamber of the cave is a mystery: it may have come to rest there after being washed in by floodwater. Or perhaps it was placed there intentionally by another individual living in the cave.
“Manot is the best candidate for the interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals and there is really no other candidate,” Hershkovitz said. “The people at Manot cave are the only population we know of that shared the same geographical region for a very long period of time,” he added. Without DNA from the skull, it is impossible to know if the Manot cave individual was a product of such couplings.
Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum, said the region was certainly a contender for the main interbreeding that happened 50 millennia ago, though further north than modern day Israel was possible.
“At about 55,000 years old, this is the first modern human from western Asia which is well dated to the estimated timeframe of interbreeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals,” Stringer said.
“Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesised out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia, and also into Europe. Its discovery raises hopes of more complete specimens from this critical region and time period,” he added.