A large worldwide research team, led by Israel Hershkovitz from Tel Aviv University and including Rolf Quam from Binghamton University, State University of NY, has discovered the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa.
Some of the features were visually characteristic of modern humans, as well: they included a flat labial surface and a lingual groove, and no lingual tubercle, among other features, they report.
"The rich archaeological evidence reveals that the inhabitants of Misliya cave were capable hunters of large game species such as aurochs (extinct large cows), Persian fallow deer and gazelles", Israel Hershkovitz, study author and professor in the department of anatomy and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, said in an email.
He added this it suggests that "members of the Homo sapiens had left Africa earlier than previously thought". That means that Misliya-1's people were probably not directly related to the people who later lived in the Qafzeh and Es-Skhul caves.
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Besides the skull fragment, the Misliya Cave site in Israel also contained a series of tools associated with the Levallois technique-a stone toolmaking common to early humans. In the abstract on the discovery (ScienceMag - Israel Fossils Abstract) University of Tel Aviv Prof.
Another interesting aspect of the discovery is the tools found alongside the fossil, says Julia Galway-Witham, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. "This is early humans doing exactly that".
"They represent the earliest association of this type of tool with modern humans outside Africa", she says.
But the new discovery provides further evidence to support the theory that Homo sapiens first trekked out of Africa through a northern route along the Nile river and not through a mid-continental route across the Bab al-Mandeb strait into the southern coast of Saudi Arabia, India and then Asia. If the researchers' dates of 177,000 to 194,000 years for the jaw and tools hold up, it means that modern humans left Africa 40,000 years earlier than expected.
Genetic evidence suggests humans alive today have descended from a group of humans who left Africa about 60,000 years ago. Just last year researchers reported that Homo sapiens fossils from a site in Morocco called Jebel Irhoud date to more than 300,000 years ago, pushing the origin of our kind back by more than 100,000 years and moving the spotlight from eastern Africa to North Africa. Interestingly, DNA analyses of Neanderthal fossils in Europe indicate that Neanderthals intermixed with modern humans much earlier, over 200,000 years ago, suggesting that waves of human migration out of Africa could have taken place earlier still.
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Until recently, early evidence for excursions outside Africa by Homo sapiens was limited to the Levant. Homo naledi, for example, may have coexisted for a period of time with Homo sapiens in South Africa, fossils suggest. The specimens were discovered in Misliya, Israel, with the help of primitive tools nearby.
They seem to live outside Africa around 185,000 years ago, some 80,000 years earlier than we thought.
"Misliya tells us that modern humans might have been in touch with other populations, including archaic ones that were already in Eurasia", Weber said.
Features of this new fossil look more like those seen in current humans than in fossils of similar age from the Ethiopian sites of Omo and Herto, the researchers said.
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