Oldest human skull in Middle East found in northern Israel

By
January 28, 2015 21:27

55,000-year-old ‘Manot Skull’ proves modern humans migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia

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human skull

AN IMAGE of the oldest human skull ever found in the Middle East. (photo credit:Courtesy)

A consortium of Israeli archeologists and anthropologists announced the discovery of the oldest human skull ever found in the Middle East on Wednesday.

The partial skull, discovered nearly seven years ago, was found in the Manot Cave in Western Galilee.

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The announcement comes after years of painstaking lab analysis to verify its date of origin, and according to Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Antiquities Authority, the 55,000-year-old skull is “one of the most important discoveries in the study of human evolution.”

“This rare skull constitutes the earliest fossilized evidence outside of Africa, indicating that today’s human population originated from East Africa and migrated from there 65,000 years ago,” he said while standing behind the skull, several meters outside the cave.

Barzilai added that the cave’s entrance collapsed over 30,000 years ago, nearly hermetically sealing the site in an excellent state of preservation.

A subsequent morphometric analysis of the skull determined that it indeed belonged to modern Homo sapiens, he said.

“Cave sites usually leave remains open to later intrusions, but the fact that the cave collapsed 30,000 years ago allowed us to explore archeological surfaces that were not subjected to human intrusions,” Barzilai continued.

“It is one of the best preserved sites in Israel and we expect to find more [remains].”

Indeed, Prof. Israel Hershovitz, an anthropologist from Tel Aviv University who helped oversee the analysis, said the cave’s seal ostensibly froze its human contents in time.

“The most exciting thing about this cave is that no one has stepped in it for 30,000 years,” he said. “Imagine someone entering your house after 30,000 years, and all the dishes and furniture are still exactly where you left them.”

“When it collapsed it was like a time capsule, or prehistoric lab,” added Dr. Ofer Marder, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“It was perfectly preserved.”

Hershovitz explained that two main migrations occurred out of East Africa to the Middle East by archaic and modern Homo sapiens roughly 120,000 years ago and between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, respectively.

However, he noted that archaic Homo sapiens, which were a variation of modern Homo sapiens, never made it past the Middle East, while modern Homo sapiens thrived, and successfully continued their migration to Europe and Asia.

“This connects the link of modern Homo sapiens out of Africa to modern man,” said Marder. “This group is special because it went on to conquer the world, whereas archaic Homo sapiens died here.”

Hershovitz said that modern man went on to replace and breed with indigenous populations, including Neanderthals, in the Middle East, Western Asia and Europe. He added that as a result of the interbreeding, most human beings have between 1 percent to 4% Neanderthal DNA.

“One of the migrant routes by which modern humans spread out across the world passes through the Levant [Mediterranean Basin], which is the only land crossing between Africa and Europe,” he explained. “But until now, no modern human remains that date to the period between 45,000 and 65,000 years ago were discovered.”

Asked why only the skull was located from the corpse, Marder said he could not be sure, but theorized that either hyenas indigenous to the area dragged it there, or that it was moved by water activity.

Still, Marder added that he is confident that more remains will be found in the area during ongoing excavations.

To date, five excavations seasons between 2010 and 2014 have been conducted in the cave, located 40 kilometers northeast of the Mount Carmel prehistoric caves.

The study of the skull was a joint project of the Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University and was funded by the Dan David Foundation, Israel Academy of Sciences, Irene Levi Sala CARE Archeological Foundation and Leakey Foundation.

The discovery is featured in the new issue of Nature magazine, released Wednesday.

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