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Ancient Skull Links Migration of Modern Humans with Neanderthals

Jan 28, 2015 03:54 PM EST

An ancient skull, dating back 55,000 years, that was recently discovered in a northern Israel cave is shedding light on the migration of modern humans out of Africa, linking their movements with Neanderthals, a new study shows.

A key event in the story of human evolution is the expansion of modern humans from Africa to across Eurasia some 40,000-60,000 years ago, replacing all other forms of hominins. However, fossil evidence of this migration has been few and far between.

Now, an international team of Israeli, North American and European researchers believe the 55,000-year-old partial skull, unearthed at the Manot Cave in Israel's Western Galilee, belonged to an early human that was part of this wave out of Africa. Not only that, but it strengthens the theory that this group co-habited and even interbred with Neanderthals.

First discovered in 2008, the skull, named Manot 1, has a distinctive "bun" shape at the back, which resembles the skulls of modern Africans and Europeans, but differs from other anatomically modern humans from the Levant - the eastern Mediterranean region that includes Israel. This finding suggests that the ancient Manot people could be closely related to the first modern humans that colonized Europe.

But perhaps more importantly, it puts modern humans and Neanderthals in the same place at the same time.

"Both modern humans and Neanderthals contemporaneously inhabited the southern Levant, close in time to the likely interbreeding event with Neanderthals," according to the study, published in the journal Nature.

According to conventional belief, Neanderthals - relatives of the only surviving ancestral human lineage - inhabited Europe and Asia up to 40,000 years ago and then disappeared. The reasons for their disappearance has long remained a mystery, but one theory has been that they simply bred into the ancestral human population to the point that they were no longer recognized as their own sub-species.

Now, Manot 1 indicates that these two groups indeed may have mated 55,000 years ago, strengthening this theory.

The researchers plan to hunt for more fossils in the Manot Cave in July to help paint a more accurate picture of humanity's evolutionary history.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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