GERHARD WEBER, UNIVERSITY OF VIENNAHuman remains found in a collapsed cave in Israel may change the commonly-accepted timeline for human migration out of Africa, pushing that milestone back by 55,000 years or more, according to a study published yesterday (January 25) in Science. The fossil, a partial jawbone, was unearthed in 2002 and analyzed by researchers at Tel Aviv University and other institutions around the world, who report that it belonged to an early modern human.
The jawbone “provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed,” study coauthor Rolf Quam of Binghamton University in New York tells Science News.
Prior to the newly-reported find, which was dated at between 177,000 and 194,000 years old, the oldest human remains found outside Africa were estimated to be from 90,000 to 120,000 years ago. Study coauthor Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University tells Science News that the earliest Homo sapiens to leave Africa likely mixed with Neanderthals who were already in the Middle East, eventually replacing them. Other fossil evidence suggests Neanderthals returned to the area around 80,000 years ago.
Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany who was not involved in the study, tells the New York Times that while the jawbone appears more similar to early modern humans than to Neanderthals, its bearer may not have closely resembled today’s humans. It’s possible the remains belong not to ancestors of modern Homo sapiens, but to a population that later died off, he adds.