Skull Fossil Offers New Clues on Human Journey From Africa

Jan 30, 2015

Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By John Noble Wilford

Anthropologists exploring a cave in Israel have uncovered a rare 55,000-year-old skull fossil that they say has a story to tell of a reverberating transition in human evolution, at a point when and where some early humans were moving out of Africa and apparently interbreeding with Neanderthals.

The story is of when the Levant was a corridor for anatomically modern humans who were expanding out of Africa and then across Eurasia, replacing all other forms of early human-related species. Given the scarcity of human fossils from that time, scholars say, these ancestors of present-day non-African populations had remained largely enigmatic.

From the new fossil find, which could be closely related to the first modern humans to colonize Stone Age Europe, it appears that these people already had physical traits a bit different from the Africans they were leaving behind and many other human inhabitants along the corridor.

Could this support recent genetic evidence that modern Homo sapiens and their Neanderthal cousins interbred, perhaps in the Middle East and most likely between 65,000 and 47,000 years ago? The discovery team urged caution on the interbreeding issue, but noted anatomical features of the cranium suggesting that some human-Neanderthal mixture had presumably occurred before any encounters in Europe and Asia.


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14 comments on “Skull Fossil Offers New Clues on Human Journey From Africa

  • Some of the museums make available CT scans of fossils and skulls of early hominids. I hope they do so with these, I’ve been 3D printing them, makes a huge difference to be able to physical models of your precursors in your hands.



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  • @OP – Anthropologists exploring a cave in Israel have uncovered a rare 55,000-year-old skull fossil that they say has a story to tell of a reverberating transition in human evolution, at a point when and where some early humans were moving out of Africa and apparently interbreeding with Neanderthals.

    The story is of when the Levant was a corridor for anatomically modern humans who were expanding out of Africa and then across Eurasia, replacing all other forms of early human-related species.

    Here are some charts and maps which will help put this into context.

    http://essayweb.net/history/ancient/prehistory.shtml

    There had been earlier migrations through this area which could have given rise to the Neanderthals. There is a map for migrations during this period but it seems to miss this area.



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  • So help me out with this- my understanding is that only the same species can interbreed. DNA is now being mapped to show how much Neanderthal and Denisovan we carry in our genes. Does that mean Neanderthals were not a different species? How does this work, anyone know?



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  • mombird Jan 31, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    So help me out with this- my understanding is that only the same species can interbreed.

    The term “species” is essentially a system of labelling, or technically “nomenclature” or “cladistics”)so we know which organism we are talking about.

    When it comes to the diversity across gene pools nature is is not so clear cut. There are species, subspecies, varieties, cultivars etc. which recognise differences between geographically separated populations as nature and natural selection, branches and diversifies.

    Within genera, hybrids are common, and while many are sterile, in closely related species, sterility tends to be a percentage rather than absolute, with sterility and possible health problems increasing as the relationship becomes more distant.

    Hence lions and tigers are recognised as different species because they are naturally in geographically isolated gene-pools even though in captivity they can breed.

    http://www.ibtimes.com/zonkey-wholphin-liger-tigon-fascinating-animal-hybrids-photos-1359907

    In plants, fertile hybrids are quite common and may be more vigorous than their parent species.



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  • 7
    Light Wave says:

    Sapiens and neanderthals both share a similar ancestor…like antecessor who came out of africa around a million years ago migrated directly into Europe and evolved into heidelbergensis and likely migrated across eurasia and into asia and middle east hunting mammoth……I think heidelbergensis is both sapien and neanderthal’s male ancestor and we both had different female ancestors….neanderthal had ancient european female ancestor whereas sapien had modern african female ancestor….anyway sapien and neanderthal are both human and are close enough to produce viable offspring…most sapiens who came out of africa 70,000 years ago and suvived to the present have 2% neanderthal dna in them



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  • Just as a point of interest Alan, are there any theories that suggest humans evolved from many apes in many locations or does DNA pretty much rule that out?



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  • Alan,

    As you are about I wondered about your thoughts here and a couple of links I posted on the ‘Viruses making you clever’ thread. Thanks.



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  • Olgun Feb 1, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Just as a point of interest Alan, are there any theories that suggest humans evolved from many apes in many locations or does DNA pretty much rule that out?

    I think the migrations caused branching of the Homo species, but some were not sufficiently divided to sub-species to prevent some fertile offspring from cross breeding.

    The present theories include Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in some modern human populations. I did read that Denisovan genes confer tolerance of high altitude living. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140702-genetics-tibetan-denisovan-altitude-science/



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  • Thanks Alan. I need to regroup my thoughts now. Migration to me meant actual travel but am now stuck on overlaps and cross breeding which does not really explain the maps.



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  • Olgun Feb 2, 2015 at 11:22 am

    We need to remember that the maps cover very long time-scales, with a whole series of migrations.
    One interesting feature of the maps is that they illustrate the opening and closing of migration routes with the rise and fall of sea-levels caused by the graphed ice-ages.



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  • Olgun Feb 2, 2015 at 11:44 am

    .Yeh! It becomes easier for me if I think of the one constant DNA coming out of Africa rather than people.

    Of course the species in Africa continued to evolve with changes of habitat and climate – although along different paths to those meeting the challenges of geographically remote new environments.

    Africa has a long history of forests giving way to grasslands and deserts and vice-versa.



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