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Long before the ancestors of living people today entered Eurasia 60,000 years ago, other Homo sapiens groups had already occupied parts of the continent. Fossil finds have already recently established that early modern humans settled in the Levant and East Asia by 120,000 years ago, but a new discovery is further eroding the pre-existing consensus model.
Scientists have confirmed the presence of an archaic Homo sapiens jaw fragment and a significant number of skilfully worked stone tools present at the Misliya Cave site, one of Mt Carmel’s many caves. The article published on the research project, Israeli fossils are the oldest modern humans ever found outside of Africa, appeared in the science journal Nature. This story has initiated a wave of worldwide media attention. The archaeological site is situated just a few kilometres away from the Skhul cave, which has previously produced modern human remains dated at 80,000–120,000-year-old. The new find was so much older than the team spent several years ensuring all possible checks were done to validate the find and assign it to the correct species, in this instance archaic Homo sapiens. After considerable analysis, the jaw fragment was dated at 177,000–194,000 years ago.
“We called it ‘Searching for the Origins of the Earliest Modern Humans’. This was what we were looking for,” says Mina Weinstein-Evron, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel.
It is usually thought that early modern humans in the Levant and the Middle East were unable to expand beyond this region into Eurasia, dying out by some unknown mechanism, the assumption being that they had flowed out from Africa. There is no solid evidence to say these groups did indeed emerge from Africa of course. With recent confirmation that the Chinese Dali Skull is that of an archaic Homo sapiens individual (from 260,000 years ago), we must keep a degree of scepticism regarding the mainstream scientists’ assumptions on the geographic origins of this population.
Professor Hiscock, an archaeologist from the University of Sydney, has raised the question of whether this individual was an ancestor of living humans and also commented on the claim that these early modern humans were unable to expand beyond the Levant.
“If that’s true, why did they die out and why were our ancestors able to move out when these people didn’t, given that they’re anatomically the same as us?” he said.
Human origins are a rather murky business, there is no definitive narrative to this story beyond a few fixed points between which lines can potentially be drawn in multiple (at times conflicting) directions. The first thing anyone that follows palaeoanthropology should recognise is that the entire subject is dependent not so much on archaeological and genetic evidence as it is on accurate interpretations and sensible assumptions. There is currently no sample of Homo sapiens DNA older than 45,000 years, and the fossil record for archaic Homo sapiens is sparse. This means any favoured human origins hypothesis can change rapidly on the turn of a trowel.
This incredibly ancient human bone further erodes the waning recent out of Africa model, not only were early modern human populations living beyond Africa 120,000 years ago but that they had already colonised western Eurasia almost 200,000 years. This date from Israel is virtually contemporary with those of the oldest early modern human remains found in East Africa, at 160,000 – 195,000 years of age (the Omo and Herto Skulls).
This latest announcement comes hot on the heels of several other ‘problematic’ findings, including a new status for China’s Dali Skull, now identified as being that of a 260,000-year-old archaic Homo sapiens. The other major upset for existing models involved the detection of an interbreeding event between Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens which occurred somewhere in Eurasia around 270,000 years ago, emerging from the study of a Neanderthal bone at the Hohlenstein-Stadel archaeological site in Germany. The Hohlenstein-Stadel genetic study was published by Nature in late 2016, under the title Deeply divergent archaic mitochondrial genome provides lower time boundary for African gene flow into Neanderthals.
When we factor in additional discoveries of potential early Homo sapiens populations living at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco around 300,000 years ago and others in China at dates closely matching those of the Dali skull, we begin to recognise Homo sapiens as a highly mobile and widespread species even from their very earliest appearance in the fossil record. It is time to completely abandon any romantic idea of a human genesis in an Eden-like human enclave somewhere in East Africa around 200,000 years ago.
“The fossil could indicate that Israel and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula were part of a larger region in which H. sapiens evolved”, says John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York.
Perhaps the most intriguing implication of these very early modern human population in the Levant is that we no longer require a migration 120,000 years ago to explain fossils from that later period. It may well be that these more recent human populations were the descendants of the former archaic Homo sapiens present across the continent. Perhaps it is time for us to be more sceptical of claims involving additional migrations out of Africa and consider other interpretations of the available evidence.