FEB 24, 2015 2:57 PM PST

Neanderthal Ancestors? 55,000-Year-Old Skull Fragment Discovered in Northern Israel

WRITTEN BY: Ilene Schneider
Researchers have found a 55,000-year-old partial skull in the northern Israel community of Manot, from about the time when modern humans expanded out of Africa.

The incomplete skull, which was discovered deep in a cave by amateur speleologists, may belong to a human group that interbred with Neanderthals. Filling a major gap in the fossil record of Homo sapiens' journey from Africa to Europe, the anatomy of this fossil may offer clues about what the first modern human Europeans were like.

The team that made the discovery includes Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University with archaeologists Dr. Ofer Marder of Ben-Gurion University's Department of Bible, Archaeology and Ancient Near East Studies, and Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority. They recently published their finding in the journal Nature.

Modern humans first arose between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago in Africa. Science has suggested the African exodus of modern humans started between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, but much remains a mystery about this dispersal because of the scarcity of human fossils from this time.

This ancient human skull fragment, including the top but not the jaw, may come from a close relative of the first modern humans to colonize Europe. The fossil was discovered accidentally in 2008, when a bulldozer clearing land for a development in Manot near the Sea of Galilee unearthed an opening to a limestone cave. The original entrance to the cave was sealed off by a rock fall about 30,000 years ago, making it a relatively pristine time capsule," says BGU's Dr. Ofer Marder, one of the leaders of the study.

Amateur speleologists were the first to explore the cave, and they spotted the battered bone - the top portion of a skull - resting on a ledge. The Israel Antiquities Authority soon launched a complete survey of Manot Cave, finding buried stone tools at several spots that are still being excavated.

"Here we actually hold a skull of a human being that was living next to the Neanderthals," said Israel Hershkovitz, the leader of a study published recently in Nature. "Potentially he is the one that could interbreed with the Neanderthals," said Hershkovitz, who is a physical anthropologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Genome studies of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and of both ancient and contemporary H. sapiens suggest that the two species interbred somewhere in the Middle East between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, but no remains of anatomically modern humans have been discovered in the Middle East from this crucial period, after H. sapiens left Africa and before it colonized Europe and Asia.

According to Hershkovitz, the skull was unquestionably fromH. sapiens, because it was similar in shape to those of earlier African and later European humans. A patina of calcite coated the fragment, and the researchers used radioactive uranium in the mineral to date the bone to about 55,000 years old. That means that the Manot people are probably the forefathers of the early Palaeolithic populations of Europe, Hershkovitz said.

The Manot people are also a leading candidate for the humans that bred with Neanderthals, giving all of today's non-African humans some Neanderthal heritage. The Manot Cave is near two other sites that held Neanderthal remains of a similar age.

"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 said. "The ultimate proof would be to look for the presence of Neanderthal ancestry in DNA from the skull, but the region's balmy temperatures mean that ancient DNA is unlikely to have been preserved."
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
You May Also Like
APR 30, 2020
Earth & The Environment
New Study Reveals Amount of Microplastics on Seafloor
APR 30, 2020
New Study Reveals Amount of Microplastics on Seafloor
Microplastics—the often microscopic plastic particles resulting from the breakdown of large plastic items or mater ...
MAY 06, 2020
Earth & The Environment
Mapping the Cities of the Future
MAY 06, 2020
Mapping the Cities of the Future
A study published in the journal Nature Communications has predicted the cities of the future with data science. In an e ...
MAY 22, 2020
Earth & The Environment
Mount St. Helens: 40 Years of Recovery
MAY 22, 2020
Mount St. Helens: 40 Years of Recovery
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption in southwestern Washington. According to ...
JUN 07, 2020
Plants & Animals
Cephalopods Observed At Record-Shattering Oceanic Depths
JUN 07, 2020
Cephalopods Observed At Record-Shattering Oceanic Depths
The ocean plays host to a plethora of diverse marine animal species, but the vast majority of those generally reside at ...
JUN 14, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Why Are There So Few Black People in STEM?
JUN 14, 2020
Why Are There So Few Black People in STEM?
On June 10th, 2020, thousands of STEM scientists and organizations around the world went on strike to protest systemic r ...
JUL 03, 2020
Earth & The Environment
The secrets uncovered in the South American Drought Atlas
JUL 03, 2020
The secrets uncovered in the South American Drought Atlas
A crucial new resource has been added to climate science recently: the most recent edition of the South American Drought ...
Loading Comments...