Anthropologists exploring a cave in Israel have uncovered a rare 55,000-year-old skull fossil that they say has a story to tell of a reverberating transition in human evolution, in the time and place when some early humans were moving out of Africa and apparently interbreeding with Neanderthals.
The story is of when the Levant was a corridor for anatomically modern humans who were expanding out of Africa and then across Eurasia, replacing all other forms of early human-related species. Given the scarcity of human fossils from that time, scholars say, these ancestors of present-day non-African populations had remained largely enigmatic.
From the new fossil find, which could be closely related to the first modern humans to colonize Stone Age Europe, it appears that these people already had physical traits a bit different from the Africans they were leaving behind and many other human inhabitants along the corridor.
Could this support recent genetic evidence that modern Homo sapiens and their Neanderthal cousins interbred, perhaps in the Middle East and most likely between 65,000 and 47,000 years ago? The discovery team urged caution on the interbreeding issue but noted anatomical features of the cranium suggesting that some human-Neanderthal mixture had presumably occurred before any encounters in Europe and Asia.
The discovery in Manot Cave, in western Galilee, made in 2008 but subjected to years of rigorous analysis, was reported Wednesday in the journal Nature by an international team of researchers led by Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University. They said this was "the first fossil evidence from the critical period when genetic and archaeological models predict that African modern humans successfully migrated out of Africa and colonized Eurasia."
The researchers further concluded that the Manot specimen "provides important clues about the morphology of modern humans in close chronological proximity to a probable interbreeding event with Neanderthals." They also noted that the shape of the cranium established this as a fully modern human at a time when warmer and wetter conditions were favorable for human migration out of Africa.
In other words, Hershkovitz said in an interview, the Manot cranium "is the missing connection between African and European populations."
Scientists not involved with the research team praised the "fascinating new fossil" and the cautious interpretation of its broader implications understanding the early migrations into Eurasia.
"This fossil fits previous predictions," said Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York, "which is a nice rarity in our field."
Delson, also a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, added, "As always, we want more fossils to document variations in and details about this presumed fossil population."
In an email, Delson praised the journal authors "for hitting the mark with their analyses and interpretations, reaching all the possible conclusions one could think of: The partial skull combines a basically modern human form with a few features also found in Neanderthals." In addition, he pointed out, the analysis "supports the similarity of its shapes" to those of modern Africans and early modern humans from Europe, such as the Cro-Magnons.
The partial skull, designated Manot 1, is of a fairly small adult individual, its sex undetermined. The distinctive bunlike shape at the base of the skull resembles modern African and European skulls but differs from other anatomically modern humans from the Levant, and is thus a strong clue that these were among the first humans to settle Europe, scientists said.
Delson agreed that the evidence "makes it possible that this individual is (or is descended from) a ‘hybrid’ between modern humans and Neanderthals, but as the authors note, such a conclusion cannot be reached from a single fossil, especially as hybrids between species of modern primates usually have some genetically related anatomical oddities."
One concern is that the fossil skull is fairly small, with a somewhat lower braincase capacity than in modern humans. With only one specimen, it is hard to know whether this is normal for the general population, scientists said. And Delson said it would be interesting to test for DNA in the skull to support its possible hybrid status in a time of overlapping modern human-Neanderthal populations when early humans were making their way, as he phrased it, to "that small zoological backwater of Eurasia known as Europe."
Several caves in the vicinity of Manot were occupied for long times by Neanderthals between 65,000 and 50,000 years ago. In this respect, Hershkovitz said, Manot is an excellent place to search for possible hybrids, but they may be difficult to recognize from surface features. "Only DNA study will solve the problem," he said.