Study: Paleolithic skull in Israel may shed light on humans' path from Africa

This partial skull from a modern human dates back roughly 55,000 years, meaning they may have interacted with Neanderthals around this time in modern-day Israel.

Story highlights

  • Experts announce the discovery of a modern human skull in what's now Israel
  • It dates back 55,000 years, which is also when Neanderthals were in area
  • Study co-author: "This is the first specimen we have that connects Africa to Europe"

(CNN)Neanderthals, meet modern humans. Modern humans, say hello to Neanderthals.

Now would you two care for a date?
That was possible some 55,000 years ago in modern-day Israel, archaeologists announced this week -- a find that they say could be significant, since it could shed light on when and how our modern-day ancestors moved from Africa into Europe and Asia.
    It's all based on the discovery of portions of a skull (including the top but not the jaw) in Manot Cave in western Galilee detailed in a study published Wednesday in Nature.
    The specimen "is unequivocally modern" and is "similar in shape to recent African skulls as well as to European skulls," according to the report from a team of researchers from the University of Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion University, Israel Antiquities Authority and elsewhere.
    "It's amazing," co-author Israel Hershkovitz told the Guardian, explaining how the skull was found on the rocky shelf of a cave that collapsed 30,000 years ago and was revealed in 2008. "This is the first specimen we have that connects Africa to Europe."
    Uranium-thorium dating suggests the skull dates back about 55 millennia.
    "Manot is the best candidate for the interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals," Israel Hershkowitz said.
    Why is that time frame significant? For one thing, many scientists believe modern humans left Africa for points north 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. The Nature study suggests it was closer to the older date, and that they might have gone through the modern-day Middle East.
    According to the report, an analysis of the skull indicates that "the Manot people could be closely related to the first modern humans who later successfully colonized Europe." In other words, the first modern-day Europeans -- thought to have arrived on that continent around 45,000 years ago -- may have stopped in Israel first.
    But it's not like they were all alone then among hominids, the blanket term for erect primates from chimpanzees to homo sapiens, in either place. Around that time -- what's known as the Upper Paleolithic Period, or Late Stone Age -- there were Neanderthals both in Europe and in what's now Israel.
    The Nature study claims the Manot find represents "the only modern human specimen to provide evidence that during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic interface, both modern humans and Neanderthals concurrently inhabited the southern Levant."
    This all was happening around the time of "likely interbreeding ... with the Neanderthals" -- meaning the two groups of hominids could have gotten together and reproduced.
    Without DNA tests, it's impossible to say if the adult whose skull was found was a pure descendant of the modern humans who came from Africa, or had a bit of Neanderthal ancestry mixed in. But it definitely could have happened. Or, just as possible, that person or some immediate ancestors could have reproduced with Neanderthals.
    "Manot is the best candidate for the interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals," Hershkovitz told the Guardian. "There really is no other candidate."
    The discovery was generally greeted warmly by experts, though with some hints of caution. This was only one specimen, after all, so there may be others out there that could be even more informative. And it was only part of a skull.
    Chris Stringer, of London's Natural History Museum, tweeted that he agrees with skeptics that "interbreeding could have happened elsewhere in Asia (50,000 to 60,000 years ago). Also skull lacks the most informative areas."
    Yet in comments to Discovery News, Stringer also acknowledged that "Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesized out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia and also into Europe."
    Stringer said, "It is the first modern human from western Asia that is well dated to the estimated time frame of interbreeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals."