Scientists have unearthed fossilized skull remains belonging to a previously unknown population of archaic hominin – the Nesher Ramla Homo – at a site in Israel.
With a combination of both Neanderthal and archaic human features, this new group of Homo in the Levant may shake up some of the old assumptions about our “family tree” and shed light onto the origins of Neanderthals.
It’s long been held that Neanderthals — an extinct species or subspecies of archaic humans who lived in Eurasia until around 40,000 years ago — originated and thrived in Europe long before the arrival of modern humans. However, recent genetic evidence has thrown doubt on this idea by hinting at the existence of an unknown non-European group that may have played a big role in the emergence of Neanderthals.
In two joint studies (here and here), published in the journal Science, researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem argue this discovery of the Nesher Ramla Homo could be that “missing link.”
At a site near the city of Ramla, archaeologists discovered the partial remains of a fossilized skull belonging to a member of the Homo genus, including part of its cranium, a chunk of its jaws and some teeth, as well as an assortment of animal bones and flint tools. Putting these parts together with some in-depth analysis revealed that the skull belonged to an unknown member of the Homo genus that likely shared features with both Neanderthals (especially the teeth and jaws) and archaic Homo (specifically the skull).
They argue that this is a new group of Homo, complete with its own distinct features and characteristics, that lived in the Levant between 400,000 to 120,000 years ago.
“The archaeological finds associated with human fossils show that ‘Nesher Ramla Homo’ possessed advanced stone-tool production technologies and most likely interacted with the local Homo sapiens,” Dr Yossi Zaidner, study author from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, said in a statement. “We had never imagined that alongside Homo sapiens, archaic Homo roamed the area so late in human history."
The team strongly believes the Nesher Ramla Homo were likely the ancestors of other Homo species, with some members of the group migrating to Europe where they eventually evolved into Neanderthals. Others appear to have moved to Asia where they became an established archaic population of Homo. Furthermore, it’s possible that many of the unusual archaic human fossils found previously in Israel, which have baffled anthropologists for years, may also have belonged to this newly discovered Nesher Ramla group.
“Before these new findings, most researchers believed the Neanderthals to be a 'European story', in which small groups of Neanderthals were forced to migrate southwards to escape the spreading glaciers, with some arriving in the Land of Israel about 70,000 years ago,” explained Professor Israel Hershkovitz from the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University in a statement.
“The Nesher Ramla fossils make us question this theory, suggesting that the ancestors of European Neanderthals lived in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, repeatedly migrating westward to Europe and eastward to Asia. In fact, our findings imply that the famous Neanderthals of Western Europe are only the remnants of a much larger population that lived here in the Levant — and not the other way around."