In yet another shake-up of the established timeline of our species, researchers have uncovered the oldest modern human fossil outside of Africa, and it is much older than expected.
Discovered in what is now Israel, the partial jawbone dates to between 175,000 and 200,000 years old, pushing back when we thought modern humans migrated out of Africa by a hefty 50,000 years. Interestingly, this is consistent with what the genetics tells us and also lines up nicely with human fossils found in eastern Asia and Australia that suggest people got there by around 120,000 years ago.
“Misliya is an exciting discovery,” says Binghamton University's Rolf Quam, who co-authored the study published in Science, in a statement. “It provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed.”
This find makes it even more likely that when our ancestors left Africa, they bumped into a whole menagerie of other archaic human species. From the Neanderthals (who were known to have lived as far south as Israel) to the Denisovans in Siberia and Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis in Asia, the world was thronging with hominins.
The site at Misliya not only contains human fossils but is also littered with tools they made, lead researcher Israel Hershkovitz told IFLScience. “Unlike East African specimens, the Misliya specimen came from a clear archeological context, [as] more than 60,000 flints have been discovered in the layers excavated during the years. This allowed us a glance into the lifestyle of our remote ancestors.”
It seems that these ancient people were living in caves in the region, crafting tools from local flint to hunt the large herbivores that dotted the Mediterranean landscape and then cooking them on fires.
This isn’t the first – nor will it be the last – time that we’ve had such a dramatic shake-up of our history. Only last year, archaeologists discovered human fossils that pushed back the origin of our species by a staggering 100,000 years.
This finding, dating to around 300,000 years old, was unequivocally the oldest human fossil found in Africa, and what is more surprising is that it was dug up not in the grasslands of East Africa, but the arid mountains of Morocco. From this find, they argued that humans likely evolved through a network of connected populations throughout Africa.
But while these early humans would have blended into a crowd of people today, and are still the earliest known members of Homo sapiens, they were not modern humans as we tend to think of them, as their brain cases were smaller than our own. The researchers looking at this latest find, however, say that the evidence implies that this fossil belonged to a modern human.
"The Misliya specimen is not just the oldest modern human outside Africa, it is the oldest modern human we know of,” says Hershkovitz. “The fossils from East Africa were defined by their publishers as 'near modern humans', yet not as modern humans.”
It means that as other waves of humans left Africa thousands of years later, they might well have bumped into the descendants of these early explorers. This, the authors argue, could explain some of the strange skull morphology seen in other early human fossils from the region, which seems to show a mixture of more modern and archaic features.
The find certainly raises some fascinating questions about how and when we thought humans evolved, and as more excavations are carried out across Africa, the Middle East, and China, we are likely to uncover even more intriguing finds.