A 55,000-year-old skull unearthed in an Israeli cave is the first Homo sapiens fossil discovered outside of Africa shortly after our species began exploring different continents. And it may have belonged to the forebear of the very first modern Europeans. The findings, published in Nature this week, also suggest that humans lived in the same neighborhood with Neanderthals for thousands of years—and that they may have interbred.
According to the fossil record, anatomically modern humans were still living in Africa when other members of our genus Homo, from Neanderthals to the “hobbits,” were residing in Europe and Asia. Our species didn’t expand across Eurasia until about 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, ultimately replacing all other forms. Last year, researchers used DNA extracted from a fossil thigh bone to sequence the genome of a 45,000-year-old modern human male from Siberia; those results suggest that his ancestors mixed with Neanderthals around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.
However, until now, there have been no Homo sapiens fossils from the Middle East corridor during the pivotal time after modern humans left Africa but before expanding into Europe and Asia. Who is the ancestor of all present-day, non-African populations? Now, a large international team led by Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University have examined a partial skullcap excavated from Manot Cave (pictured above and below) in Western Galilee, Israel.
The Manot cranium, Hershkovitz tells the New York Times, “is the missing connection between African and European populations.” Various views are pictured to the right.
Based on uranium-thorium techniques, the skull dates back 54,700 years. And based on its features—including the height of its widest part and a distinctive bun-shaped occipital region (pictured, b)—the fossil is unequivocally modern, the authors write. Shape-wise, it resembles modern African and European skulls from the Late Stone Age, but it’s different from other humans from the Levant region, which includes Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. That means the Manot people were closely related to the first modern humans that later colonized Europe.
Additionally, this is the first fossil evidence indicating that modern humans and Neanderthals inhabited the area around the same time during the late Pleistocene. “The southern Levant is the only place where anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals were living side by side for thousands and thousands of years,” Hershkovitz tells Nature News. That makes the Middle East “the most likely place for the love affair” between the two, he says to Science. However, we can’t know for sure without DNA from the skull—but that’s unlikely for now, given the hot, balmy climate where it was found.
Images: Israel Hershkovitz, Ofer Marder & Omry Barzilai (top, bottom), I. Hershkovitz et al., Nature 2015 (middle)