Fossil Traces Human Migration Out of Africa

Scientists uncover early evidence of modern man’s movements from Africa into Europe—and of potential human-Neanderthal interbreeding.

Jan 28, 2015
Bob Grant

Homo sapiens (left) and Neanderthal (right) skullsWIKIMEDIA, HAIRYMUSEUMMATT Researchers are claiming that a 55,000-year-old partial skull found in a cave in western Galilee is evidence that humans migrated out of Africa and into Europe via Israel. In addition, the authors of a Nature paper published today (January 28) suggest the fossilized remain—named “Manot” after the cave that yielded it—supports a hypothesis that Neanderthal and modern humans were occupying the same areas concomitantly and perhaps interbreeding. “Manot clearly shows that Neanderthals and modern human lived side by side in Israel for a long period of time,” study coauthor Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University told Discovery News. “All recent genetic and archaeological studies predict that the inbreeding event between the Neanderthals and modern humans occurred between 50,000-60,000 years ago, and in the Near East.”

The Manot skull fragment, which lacks a brow ridge and jaw, has distinctly Homo sapien features, but also hints of Neanderthal characteristics. The authors were careful not to over-interpret their findings, but available evidence “makes it possible that this individual is (or is descended from) a ‘hybrid’ between modern humans and Neanderthals,” Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College in New York City, told The New York Times. “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.”

Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum told The Guardian that the skull could be the missing link between modern humans living in Africa and those that eventually spread around the globe. “Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesized out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia and also into Europe,” he said. “Its discovery raises hopes of more complete specimens from this critical region and time period.”