Researchers Find Earliest Known Human Fossil Outside Africa

The discovery-an upper jawbone or maxilla with intact teeth-was found at Misliya, a prehistoric cave on Mount Carmel in northern Israel, an important site for excavations of early human remains during the last century.

"A jawbone complete with teeth recently discovered at Israel's Misliya cave has now been dated to 177,000-194,000 years ago".

In a 2017 paper in the journal Nature, for instance, a team led by Cosimo Posth of Germany's University of Tubingen presented evidence that genetic material recovered from a German Neanderthal fossil had accumulated fragments of Homo sapiens DNA as early as 270,000 years ago. The research was published today in Science, and if it holds true, then humanity's story just got a lot more complex.

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 NY tells Science News. "It also means that modern humans were potentially meeting and interacting during a longer period of time with other archaic human groups, providing more opportunity for cultural and biological exchanges". If the dating of the oldest human fossils turns out to be correct, our timeline for the evolution of humanity could be pushed back several hundred thousand years.

And the latest genetic work hints that there may have been even earlier treks out of Africa-and into the midst of other human species, adds Hublin. The jawbone, said to be between 175,000 to 200,000 years old, suggests that Homo Sapien migration may have occurred a full 75,000 years prior to what the scientific community has, until now, agreed upon.

They seem to live outside Africa around 185,000 years ago, some 80,000 years earlier than we thought.

Our genes don't lie, and according to population genetics studies, most modern-day populations outside Africa can trace their roots to a group that dispersed around 60,000 ago.

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"It was one of these terraces where they could overlook the landscape in front of them", says study co-author Rainer Grün, director of the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University in Queensland. This suggests the emergence of this advanced method of stone-tool creation was linked to the appearance of modern humans in this region, as was previously seen in Africa. When they compared the anatomical details of the Misliya specimen to those of fossils belonging to modern humans and their relatives, the jaw bone grouped most closely with H. sapiens.

Besides the fossil itself, archaeologists have excavated stones nearby shaped by humans in a sophisticated way known as the Levallois technique.

In 2007, researchers found a fossilised jaw and teeth of an anatomically modern human in China that smashed previous records by being dated to around 100,000 years.

Now, Misliya breaks the mold of the classical theory when Homo sapiens first left Africa, suggesting that humans left the continent whenever the climate allowed it - or, conversely, when the climate forced them out.

What this new finding shows is that there were many waves of migration out of Africa starting very early in our evolutionary history, he says. "It's a collapsed cave, but people lived there before it collapsed".

It's worth remembering that our ancestors - the Homo sapiens - weren't the only species of human wandering the globe at this time.

And the Misliya-1 fossil is definitely human, not Neanderthal or an early hominin like Homo erectus.

  • Myrtle Hill