AP — Bones found in an Israeli quarry are from a branch of the human evolutionary tree and are 120,000 to 140,000 years old, Israeli scientists reported Thursday.
A team of anthropologists spent years analyzing the fragments of a skull, lower jaw bone and tooth that were uncovered in Nesher Ramla southeast of Tel Aviv in 2010, comparing them to hundreds of fossils around the world from different eras.
The researchers — from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv University — determined that the fossils likely came from a previously unknown hominin group, which they called “Nesher Ramla Home,” closely related to Neanderthals and sharing many of their features, such as the shape of the lower jaw.
Nesher Ramla Homo may have lived alongside Homo sapiens for over 100,000 years, and may have interbred with our species, the researchers said.
The early humans, who had very large teeth and no chin, may have also been ancestors of the Neanderthals, the study added, challenging the current thinking that our evolutionary cousins originated in Europe.
The scientists also believe that there are enough similarities to link this group to other populations found in prior cave excavations in Israel dating to around 400,000 years ago.
“The morphology of the Nesher Ramla humans shares features with both Neanderthals (especially the teeth and jaws) and archaic Homo (specifically the skull). At the same time, this type of Homo is very unlike modern humans – displaying a completely different skull structure, no chin, and very large teeth,” the researchers said in a statement.
Following the study’s findings, they said, they believe that “the Nesher Ramla Homo type is the ‘source’ population from which most humans of the Middle Pleistocene developed. In addition, they suggest that this group is the so-called ‘missing’ population that mated with Homo sapiens who arrived in the region around 200,000 years ago – about whom we know from a recent study on fossils found in the Misliya cave.”
“The teeth have some unique features that enable us to draw a line between these populations,” said Tel Aviv University dental anthropologist Rachel Sarig, a co-author of the paper published Thursday in the journal Science.
This group probably inhabited the region from around 400,000 to 100,000 years ago, said Tel Aviv University physical anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, another co-author.
He said the remains found at Nesher Ramla are likely from “some of the last survivors of a once very dominant group in the Middle East.”
Prior research has shown that homo sapiens – modern humans – also lived in the region at the same time.
Many scientists believe that the arrival of homo sapiens in Europe presaged the decline of Neanderthals there, but the story may have been different in the Levant region — the crossroads between North Africa and Eurasia.
The new findings add to research showing that homo sapiens and Neanderthal-like groups overlapped in the Middle East over a significant amount of time, probably tens of thousands of years.
There were likely cultural and genetic exchanges between the groups, the paper authors suggest. “The Neanderthal story can no longer be told as a European story only. It’s a much more complicated story,” said Hershkovitz.
“The discovery of a new type of Homo is of great scientific importance,” he said. “It enables us to make new sense of previously found human fossils, add another piece to the puzzle of human evolution, and understand the migrations of humans in the old world.”
Sheela Athreya, a Texas A&M University paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, said the new research “gives us a lot to think about in terms of the history of population groups in this region, and how they may have interacted with populations in other regions, in Europe and North Africa.”
The Nesher Ramla fossils “look like something on a lineage heading toward Neanderthal,” said Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College in New York, who was not involved in the study.
He characterized the findings as “fossils of what appears to be an intermediate variety — this group may be predecessors to Neanderthals in this area.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this article.