Science

Oldest human fossil found outside Africa rewrites migration timeline

A section of jawbone discovered in Israel appears to be the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa, pushing back the date of human migration into the Middle East by at least 50,000 years
A section of jawbone discovered in Israel appears to be the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa, pushing back the date of human migration into the Middle East by at least 50,000 years
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Micro-CT scans and 3D models of the jaw indicated that it belonged to a modern human and not a Neanderthal
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Micro-CT scans and 3D models of the jaw indicated that it belonged to a modern human and not a Neanderthal
A section of jawbone discovered in Israel appears to be the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa, pushing back the date of human migration into the Middle East by at least 50,000 years
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A section of jawbone discovered in Israel appears to be the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa, pushing back the date of human migration into the Middle East by at least 50,000 years
Misliya Cave in Israel, where the earliest human fossil outside of Africa was found
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Misliya Cave in Israel, where the earliest human fossil outside of Africa was found

The origin story for modern humans is constantly being revised, but the general gist is that Homo Sapiens first arose several hundred thousand years ago in the area we now call Ethiopia, before migrating out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. Now, a jawbone discovered in a cave in Israel pushes back the date of our African exodus by at least 50,000 years.

The deep history of our species is murky, but a combination of genetic studies and fossil discoveries has let us piece together the basics. It was long thought that Homo Sapiens was about 200,000 years old, and had remained on the African continent until between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago, when we began spreading across the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

But that story has been upset by more recent discoveries. Back in June 2017, archaeologists found fossils and stone tools in Morocco dating back more than 300,000 years, indicating that modern humans were widespread across Africa earlier than previously thought. A more outlandish study even went so far as to claim that humans and chimps split from their last common ancestor in Europe, not Africa, millions of years ago. That study, however, has been widely contested.

The newest revelation is a little more believable, and actually fits in nicely with the Morocco fossils. A team led by researchers from Tel Aviv University and Binghamton University has found bones and tools in Misliya Cave, Israel, and used several different methods to date it to between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago – making it the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa by at least 50,000 years.

Remains of Earliest Modern Human Outside of Africa Unearthed in Israel

"Misliya is an exciting discovery," says Rolf Quam, co-author of the study. "It provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed. 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."

The fossil is an upper left section of jawbone, including most of the teeth. It was found alongside a range of stone tools, and when these were independently dated, they returned a similar age range.

Extrapolating the exact species from a small section of bone can be tough, so the researchers ran micro-CT scans of the fossil and made 3D models of it to study the internal structures of the teeth. Certain characteristics that are commonly seen in Neanderthals were missing, while other features that are only known to occur in modern humans were present and accounted for.

Misliya Cave in Israel, where the earliest human fossil outside of Africa was found
Misliya Cave in Israel, where the earliest human fossil outside of Africa was found

Although the Misliya fossil is clearly human, it does have some Neanderthal characteristics, but this is to be expected. After all, the Middle East at that time acted as a corridor for migration out of Africa, so several human groups would have met and mingled in the area, cross-breeding in the process.

"All of the anatomical details in the Misliya fossil are fully consistent with modern humans, but some features resemble those found in the remains of Neanderthals and other human groups," says Israel Hershkovitz, lead researcher on the study. "This suggests that, while Africa was the origin of our species, some of our traits must have evolved or been acquired outside of Africa."

The study was published in the journal Science and the team describes the study in the video below.

Sources: Tel Aviv University, Binghamton University, The Conversation

Scientists discover oldest known modern human fossil outside of Africa

4 comments
T N Args
A few individual specimens is not a migration. One specimen is certainly not a migration. An *exodus* actually means an entire people ceasing to have a presence in one region and relocating to another region. I don't think that is what happened either.
Johannes
Seems a bit weird to be making assertions about the geographical locations and movements of early humans, when they themselves would have had no concept at all of the borders of countries or continents. IMO the origins of modern humans are much more complex than suggested here. And only one route out of Africa? Don't think so.
fen
Morocco is in north Africa and any tools found there could be attributed to Europeans or Africans. Egyptians had no sub-sharan DNA showing that pre-historic Europeans lived in north Africa. There is some evidence that humans migrated into africa, as old bones show pre-humans lived in europe at the right time for them to walk up right. We have stories thousands of years old of people being sent into the desert to die, but none of us coming out of it. Is it not more likely that a large group of people were banished to the Sahara and by pure chance found the other side and lived there in isolation, rather than coming out of africa and becoming isolated because no one went back to visit? Surely when people reached Europe like countries with so much water and so much food they would have thought it paradise and maintained some form of contact back with their original people?
IanHoldsworth
Isn't the story of human evolution over the last 600K years getting rewritten about 3 time a year at the moment?