Ancient jawbone 'a revolution' in understanding of human evolution

Archaeologists discovered the jawbone in 2002 in the Misliya Cave along the western slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel.

Several recent archaeological and fossil discoveries in Asia are also pushing back the first appearance of modern humans in the region and, by implication, the migration out of Africa.

Hershkovitz explains: "This finding-that early modern humans were present outside of Africa earlier than commonly believed-completely changes our view on modern human dispersal and the history of modern human evolution".

Up until now, experts thought the migration from Africa to other continents occurred between 120,000 to 90,000 years ago, based on human fossils found at the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh, in Israel.

The discovery, details of which were published in the journal Science, suggests there were multiple waves of migration across Europe and Asia, and could also mean that modern humans in the Middle East were mingling, and possibly mating, with other human species for tens of thousands of years.

Support for that conventional date eroded over time, however: A few 20th century fossil and artifact finds in Israel showed that anatomically modern humans were in the region up to 115,000 years ago.

Archaeologists at the site have found evidence that suggests these early humans were hunter-gatherer communities that were capable of building fire & working with small tools similar to those found in Africa during the same time period. The jawbone looked as if it was from a modern human rather than from one of the other species of human that existed at the time.

"Our species", Hershkovitz added, "is a genetic mishmash of several hominins". Other fossils have been discovered in China that scientists concluded were about 100,000 years-old. An analysis of ancient DNA in a 124,000-year-old German Neanderthal bone suggests that Neanderthals may have interbred with our own species more than 220,000 years ago. The moment that early humanity left Africa was the first step on the path towards the creation of our modern world, and it appears that a discovery by researchers in Israel has called into question our understanding of the timeline surrounding this event. It's unbelievable, though, that after all this time, we can still piece together some of the long-lost history of our species' most epic journey.

The fossilized jaw and teeth were found in Misliya Cave on Mt Carmel in Israel.Credit: Mina Weinstein-Evron, Haifa Univ.

They may have moved out of Africa when the climate was more humid 244,000 to 190,000 years ago, but gone extinct as the climate got arid again, says paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazon Lahr of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who was not involved with the new find.

Our DNA also tells a story of an exit from Africa far earlier than we would have ever imagined.

A host of studies have sought to determine the genetic makeup and any interactions between modern humans and Neanderthals. It's possible the remains belong not to ancestors of modern Homo sapiens, but to a population that later died off, he adds. When the newly discovered fossil human, dubbed Misliya-1, and its companions arrived in the area, they would have found themselves living alongside Neanderthals. That's about when we'd assumed humans were just leaving Africa.

Stone tools excavated near Misliya-1 are shaped in a sophisticated way, called the Levallois technique. Homo sapiens were still late to the party, just not as late as we thought. "It's a collapsed cave, but people lived there before it collapsed".

The tool supply in the cave and other evidence were so complete it basically showed "industry" by the early modern humans, she said.

  • Santos West