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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