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Archaeology in Israel: Oldest Modern Human Remains Outside of Africa Found in Israel

(February 2015)

While excavating the Cave of Manot in Northern Israel, a group of archaeologists found a partial skull, the oldest modern human remains ever found outside of Africa.  A bulldozer laying a sewage line for the village of Manot punctured a hole through the roof of a large underground space.  Researchers estimate that the entrance to the cave collapsed and sealed it's contents inside anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. 

When speleologists (scientists who study caves) entered the cave on an exploratory mission, they found a wealth of ancient artifacts, some sitting in the sediment in the middle of the cave floor.  The explorers found animal bones, tools, remnants of six ancient fires, and writings on the cave walls. Over the subsequent digging seasons, archaeologists and speleologists uncovered artifacts that the ancient inhabitants used on a daily basis, including axes, flints, scrapers, bone tools, animal remains, arrow tips, and seashells. 

The most important find however, is the skull fragment.  The calvaria, or top of the skull, was discovered lying on a rock edge in a small chamber of the cave.  A comprehensive analysis carried out by a team of two dozen researchers from Israeli universities and abroad determined that the skull fragment belonged to a young adult who died approximately 55,000 years ago. 

One of the coordinators of the project, Omry Barzilai, stated confidently that “It supports the theory that modern humans left Africa around 60,000 years ago through this region.”  Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz explained that human remains are rare in the Middle East, and the remains that are found usually belong to other early hominid species.  He asserted that the skull found in the Manot Cave looks completely different from the remains of other groups found in the region, but is strikingly similar to specimens excavated in Africa during that time period.  “This is the smoking gun that confirms what geneticists have been predicting.  We had finds from Africa and from Europe but we were missing the connection between them... this is the missing connection between the older African populations and the later European populations” Hershkovitz announced. 

The Manot Skull.  Photo by Ariel David, Haaretz

Neanderthals are known to have inhabited this area during the same time period, and some experts believe that this may have been the stage where Homo sapiens and Neanderthals first interacted due to the fact that Neanderthals were not present in Africa, flourishing in the cooler climate of Europe.  From analysis of ancient bones, scientists have learned that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals did inbreed, and have been able to trace the Neanderthal genes in Homo sapiens back to a point roughly 60,000 years ago.  This supports the theory that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens met in the Middle East around the time of the Manot skull specimen.  Some scientists who have studied the skull believe that it belonged to a Homo sapien-Neanderthal hybrid because it has a bulge on the back of the skull, referred to as “bunning”, a trademark characteristic of Neanderthals. They have not yet been able to test this hypothesis, because they have not been able to extract DNA from the skull fragment. 

The excavation has just begun, and archaeologists involved with the project have stated that they have just excavated the later layers, most of which were deposited just before the roof of the cave gave in.  The excavation team is hopeful that the more ancient parts of the cave will hold more remains from the same time period or earlier.  The project is being carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and Ben Gurion University. 

Sources: Haaretz (January 28, 2015)