Middle East fossil discovery changes what we know about modern humans

26 Jan 2018

Close-up view of the Misliya teeth. Image: Israel Hershkovitz, Tel Aviv University

The discovery of the oldest known human fossil outside of Africa changes the timeline of our species by thousands of years.

Our understanding of the origin and migration of modern humans is nowhere near as complete as we would hope, with new discoveries pushing back the timeline many more millennia.

Now, one such find in Israel is being heralded as the earliest modern human fossil ever discovered outside of Africa and suggests that humans left the continent at least 50,000 years earlier than we once thought.

In a paper published to Science, an international team led by Israel Hershkovitz from Tel Aviv University detailed the fossil as an upper jawbone with several teeth discovered in a place called Misliya Cave, one of several prehistoric cave sites located on Mount Carmel.

By using several dating techniques, the archaeologists determined that the jawbone is between 175,000 and 200,000 years old.

Further analysis using microCT scans and 3D modelling then compared it with other hominin fossils from Africa, Europe and Asia.

‘An exciting discovery’

“While all of the anatomical details in the Misliya fossil are fully consistent with modern humans, some features are also found in Neanderthals and other human groups,” said Rolf Quam from Binghamton University in the US, and one of the researchers involved in the project.

“One of the challenges in this study was identifying features in Misliya that are found only in modern humans. These are the features that provide the clearest signal of what species the Misliya fossil represents.”

Other archaeological evidence in the cave suggests that its inhabitants were more than capable hunters of large game in the region, with a controlled fire and a stone tool kit similar to ones found with the earliest modern humans in Africa.

The region has long been considered the major corridor that saw humans migrate outward from the southern continent, but this new discovery opens the door to demographic replacement or genetic admixture with local populations earlier than previously thought.

“Misliya is an exciting discovery. It provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed,” Quam said.

“It also means that modern humans were potentially meeting and interacting during a longer period of time with other archaic human groups, providing more opportunity for cultural and biological exchanges.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic