55,000-year-old human skull found in Israeli cave backs theory of African origins, researchers say
Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority on Wednesday holds a 55,000-year-old skull found in an excavation in Manot Cave near the northern Israeli city of Nahariya.
VANCOUVER — The discovery of part of an early human skull in Israel is shedding new light on the origins of man.
The 55,000-year-old skull is believed to have belonged to the oldest-known human species that is a direct ancestor of modern Homo sapiens.
Francesco Berna, an archeology professor at Simon Fraser University, and Megan Thibodeau, a master’s student, were involved in the find.
“What’s surprising is the combination of the skull having very modern traits, which are very similar to modern African populations and European populations, and the age — about 55,000 years,” Prof. Berna said.
“To my knowledge, this is probably one of, if not the, oldest fossils that is so close to us.”
The international team of researchers was led by Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, Ofer Marder of Ben-Gurion University and Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquity Authority.
A paper published in Nature and co-authored by Prof. Berna documents the discovery of the skull at Manot Cave in western Galilee. The find supports the hypothesis that humans’ direct ancestors were originally from Africa, and not Europe.
“Being in Israel, in the Middle East between Africa and Europe, it supports the out-of-Africa model of modern human origin,” Prof. Berna said. “We came, in several waves, out of Africa into the Middle East, and into Europe and Asia. There’s strong fossil evidence of that.”
Other, even older, humanoid skulls have been discovered in the region, he said. “But they differ from this new skull that was found, and from us. They’re older and more primitive.”
Prof. Berna’s area of expertise is in site formation processes. He was able to help the Israeli team determine the geological processes involved in the formation of the site.
“At the beginning, I was telling them, ‘Okay, I think we should excavate here rather than there because that’s where we’re going to find stuff more [in position] and that is less re-worked.’”
He could also determine the kind of activity the
inhabitants were doing in specific areas of the cave.
“In one area, we can tell there were some established hearths, and another area, which is full of archeological material, we can see they weren’t there that much,” he said.
“Indirectly, I helped them understand the best dating methods and methodologies to assess the dating of the site and for the skull.”
Ms. Thibodeau helped Prof. Berna determine details about fire use in the cave.
Archeologists have been excavating at Manot since its discovery five years ago. Yet they have only scratched the surface.
“The excavation is ongoing,” Prof. Berna said. “I think it’s going to go on for several years.”
Scientists not involved with the research team praised the “fascinating new fossil” and the cautious interpretation of its broader implications understanding the early migrations into Eurasia.
“This fossil fits previous predictions, which is a nice rarity in our field,” said Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York,
“As always, we want more fossils to document variations in and details about this presumed fossil population.”
The partial skull combines a basically modern human form with a few features also found in Neanderthals, he said. In addition, the analysis “supports the similarity of its shapes” to those of modern Africans and early modern humans from Europe, such as the Cro-Magnons.
He agreed the evidence “makes it possible that this individual is (or is descended from) a ‘hybrid’ between modern humans and Neanderthals, but as the authors note, such a conclusion cannot be reached from a single fossil, especially as hybrids between species of modern primates usually have some genetically related anatomical oddities.”
Postmedia News, with files from The New York Times