Ancient teeth show some early humans came to Israel from Europe 40,000 years ago
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ArchaeologySix teeth among few human remains in Israel from era

Ancient teeth show some early humans came to Israel from Europe 40,000 years ago

New Tel Aviv University study attempts to put to rest an ongoing debate over when, and from which direction, the elusive, artistic Aurignacian culture was brought to the Levant

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • A view to Manot cave with a mark of the area where some of the 40,000-year-old teeth were found. (Prof. Israel Hershkovitz)
    A view to Manot cave with a mark of the area where some of the 40,000-year-old teeth were found. (Prof. Israel Hershkovitz)
  • Tel Aviv University's Dr. Rachel Sarig. Credit: (TAU Spokesperson's Office)
    Tel Aviv University's Dr. Rachel Sarig. Credit: (TAU Spokesperson's Office)
  • A map of Manot cave excavations cites with indication for the location of the 40,000-year-old teeth. (Dr. Rachel Sarig)
    A map of Manot cave excavations cites with indication for the location of the 40,000-year-old teeth. (Dr. Rachel Sarig)
  • Upper and lower molars from Manot cave, dated to 38,000 years before present, showing a mixture of  characteristics. (Dr. Rachel Sarig)
    Upper and lower molars from Manot cave, dated to 38,000 years before present, showing a mixture of characteristics. (Dr. Rachel Sarig)
  • Bone fragments belonging to an assortment of Paleolithic ungulates found in Manot Cave (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel staff)
    Bone fragments belonging to an assortment of Paleolithic ungulates found in Manot Cave (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel staff)

First the first time, scientists have uncovered rare 40,000-year-old human teeth dating to the period of the elusive Aurignacian culture in the Levant, which indicate these early humans came to the region through reverse migration from Europe, according to Dr. Racheli Sarig, of Tel Aviv University’s School of Dental Medicine and Dan David Center Center for Human Evolution and Bio-History Research.

This evidence may put to rest a decades-long chicken-and-egg debate between researchers trying to prove which direction the Aurignacian people moved. The 40,000-year-old teeth found in Israel show that these early Europeans brought their artistic culture to the Mideast.

Normally, researchers of evolution discuss human migration as taking place from Africa, through the Levant, to Europe. The new Israeli study hypothesizes that — at least for a brief period of several thousand years — humans also migrated in the “reverse” direction.

The study of the morphology of six teeth discovered in a limestone cave in the Western Galilee town of Manot was recently published in the Journal of Human Evolution. In addition to potentially solving the migration debate, the findings also indicate a period in which modern humans and Neanderthals interbred some 40,000 years ago, Sarig told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Rachel Sarig.(TAU Spokesperson’s Office)

Fossil evidence of interbreeding in this early Upper Paleolithic period has till now only been found in European locations. The similarity of the fossils led the study’s scientists to hypothesize about their common roots.

“This is a very important time in the study of human evolution,” said Sarig, in which there is evidence of mixture of the humanoids. “It can really give us insight into where Neanderthals disappeared and how they were interbred in modern humans.”

The Aurignacian culture first appeared in Europe some 43,000 years ago. There are many famous cave paintings discovered throughout the continent from this culture, including the stunning single hand in France’s Cave of Aurignac from which the era and its people took their name. The early people are known for their bone tools and artifacts, as well as jewelry and musical instruments.

While there are cultural remains that have been found in Israel, including very early art in the form of a horse cave painting, Sarig explained these six teeth discovered in the Manot Cave are among the only human fossils found here from this period of flux.

The study cannot definitely conclude that there was reverse migration from Europe, but based on the researchers’ analysis there is a high probability, she said. Similar human evidence in Europe predate the Israeli finds by several thousand years.

A map of Manot cave excavations sites with indication of the location of the 40,000-year-old teeth. (Dr. Rachel Sarig)

“Using the teeth can give us insight into the population, but without DNA, there is no definite conclusion,” said Sarig. She added that scientists are unable to garner DNA samples in specimens in the Levant that are older than 10,000 years due to poor preservation.

To overcome the lack of a genetic profile, the researchers in the current study use high-tech imaging of the teeth to chart a morphological profile. The morphological study was completed in collaboration with Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority and scientists in Austria and the US.

“Unlike bones, teeth are preserved well as they are made of enamel, which is the substance in the human body most resistant to the effects of time,” said Sarig in a TAU statement. “The structure, shape, and topography – surface bumps – of the teeth provided important genetic information. We were able to use the external and internal shape of the teeth found in the cave to associate them with typical hominin groups: Neanderthal and Homo sapiens.”

(Left to Right):Shells ornaments from Aurignacian and Ahmarian contexts in Area C and Aurignacian bone pendants from Area C (Dr. Omry Barzilai, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Using micro-CT scans and 3D analyses on four of the teeth, the team was able to create the morphological picture of the people whose mouths once held them. There were six teeth in the study from at least five individuals; three of the teeth were from adults and three from children. Only four of the teeth were viable for testing.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, Sarig explained that of the four viable teeth, one tooth showed mostly modern human morphology, another was more Neanderthal “but also had some ambiguous results and showed a mixture,” and the final two were “completely mixed,” said Sarig.

Manot Cave continues to serve up groundbreaking fossils

The current study was completed in TAU’s new Dan David Center Center for Human Evolution, which, Sarig said, is trying to be the home for all human specimens and fossils discovered in Israel.

As part of its mission to make academic research accessible to the public, the center has teamed up with the new Museum of Natural History, also at the university, where there is a collaborative evolution exhibit including other remains previously published from the Manot Cave and elsewhere. Sarig said she assumed the six Aurignacian teeth will “probably be displayed in the near future.”

Upper and lower molars from Manot cave, dated to 38,000 years before present, showing a mixture of characteristics. (Dr. Rachel Sarig)

Currently on display are other findings from the Manot Cave, which was discovered by chance in 2008 and has been excavated for nine seasons. Many of the finds have been startling, including a 55,000-year-old skull. The skull was discovered in 2010 among a mix of stone and bone tools, fragments of deer, gazelle and hyena bones and human skeletal fragments that range from 45,000 to 20,000 years old.

According to a 2015 Times of Israel article, the skull is an anatomically modern human’s, and included an “archaic” protrusion at the base of the neck typical of modern African and European skulls. It indicated that Manot people “could be closely related to the first modern humans who later successfully colonized Europe,” said Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, one of the authors of a 2015 paper, a leading voice in the field of human evolution and the head of the Dan David Center.

Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority near the site of an ancient skull fragment’s discovery in the Manot Cave (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel staff)

At the time, Hershkovitz said that roughly four percent of all modern humans’ DNA is Neanderthal. Genetic models indicate that the first hybridization took place between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago in the Levant.

“Manot, in terms of time and location,” Hershkovitz said in 2015, “is the best candidate for the love story that scientists talk about between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.”

The current tooth study focuses on a people who lived in the same Manot Cave some 17,000 years later and apparently continued the love fest.

Bone fragments belonging to an assortment of Paleolithic ungulates found in Manot Cave (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel staff)

Hershkovitz noted this week, “To date, we have not found any human remains from this period in Israel, so the group remains a mystery. This groundbreaking study brings for the first time the story of the population responsible for some of the world’s most important cultural contributions.”

In conversation, Sarig is careful not to over-egg the prehistoric pudding and said that the study is based on only a few fossils. Scientists cannot conclude overarching results based only on four teeth. “But we can get some insight,” she added.

“Following the migration of European populations into this region, a new culture existed in our region for a short time – approximately 2-3,000 years – and then disappeared for no apparent reason,” said Sarig in the TAU statement. “Now we know something about their makeup.”

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