Israeli fossil may recast history of first Europeans

Ancient braincase suggests humans and Neandertals mated in Middle East, then moved north

Homo sapiens braincase

FOSSIL FIND  A more than 50,000-year-old Homo sapiens braincase found in an Israeli cave may come from a human population that mated with Neandertals in the Middle East before settling Europe.

Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Excavations in Israel’s Manot Cave have unearthed the first fossil — a braincase — of a modern human who lived outside Africa between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neandertals probably occurred during that time, after which the humans migrated to Europe,  a team led by paleoanthropologist Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University reports in the Jan. 29 Nature.

If so, Neandertal-like skeletal traits of Stone Age humans in Europe were inherited from Middle Eastern Homo sapiens, not European Neandertals.

Features of this ancient partial skull suggest that it must have come from a population of African H. sapiens that had recently arrived in the Middle East. Some features also indicate that this human population occasionally mated with Neandertals, who lived in the Middle East at the same time.

The Manot braincase displays an overall shape and specific features in common with skulls of Africans from around 11,000 years ago and Europeans dating to between 35,000 and 14,000 years ago, the team finds. Several traits shared by European Neandertals and H. sapiens, including a bony projection at the back of the skull, also appear on the Israeli fossil. That raises the possibility that the Manot people were among the first human colonists of Europe, around 45,000 years ago, and that they passed a few Neandertal skeletal traits along to future generations of Europeans.

Chemical analyses of a thin layer of cave sediment clinging to the Manot fossil provided its estimated age. If DNA can be extracted from the fossil, researchers can look for direct evidence of interbreeding with Neandertals, Hershkovitz says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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