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.