Out of Africa

 
 

A new fossil find could rewrite our understanding of human history. Danielle Crowley investigates

 

Researchers have discovered a fossil jawbone that suggests humans started to leave Africa far earlier than previously believed.

The fossil, found in Misliya Cave, Israel, is estimated to be between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. Its age indicates that early Homo sapiens had made it to the Middle East 60,000 years earlier than thought.

Misliya Cave shows signs of habitation such as flakes of stone, some bearing burn marks, which are the remnants of a toolmaking session. Other stone tools were discovered nearby, which may have once belonged to the cave’s inhabitants.

“The Israeli find is more evidence to support a burgeoning theory that humans left Africa much earlier than expected, and that they did so in waves.”

The previous train of thought we had regarding our African departure was that modern humans, Homo sapiens, first began to move into Eurasia around 60,000 years ago. This was all well and good, until a set of teeth were discovered in China were identified to be 100,000 years old. The Israeli find is more evidence that humans left Africa much earlier than expected, and that they did so in waves.

Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, of Tel Aviv University, who was involved in the study, told the Guardian that this discovery is a “revolution in the way we understand the evolution of our own species.”

Another interesting aspect to this study is the insight it could give us as to how homosapiens interacted with the other human species around at that time.

Genetic analysis of early modern humans has shown that they interbred with other human species, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans (if you’re of Eurasian descent 1-4% of your DNA is Neanderthal in origin). However, there was some debate as to when this occurred, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to over 200,000 years ago (based on genetic analysis of a German fossil find).

“The new find has certain traits that may indicate the species were mingling earlier than previously thought.”

The new find has certain traits that may indicate the species were mingling earlier than previously thought, backing up the German study. This opens many possibilities, from suggesting that the area of the Mediterranean and the Middle East were a sort of crossroads and meeting point for various human species, to the idea that different humans were exchanging cultural and biological information for longer than we imagined.

The bone’s owner and its relatives did not contribute any genetic material to humans alive today, and while we don’t know why this branch didn’t survive, we can marvel at the wealth of information one little bone can tell us.

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