Human beings migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years earlier than thought, newly revealed fossil evidence suggests.
In a paper published in the journal Science, a team of researchers led by Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University in Israel present dating results for a fragment of human upper jaw, complete with teeth, excavated from an archaeological site in Israel called the Misliya Cave, on the edge of Mount Carmel.
The jaw was originally recovered in 2002. Burnt flints – indicating tool use – were also found nearby in the same soil layer.
During subsequent investigation, data to establish the age of the fossil was gathered by three independent laboratories using three different methods: uranium-thorium dating, thermoluminesecnce, and electron spin resonance.
The results, once combined, yielded a stunning result: the Misliya bone was between 177,000 and 194,000 years old.
Until then, available evidence from two Middle Eastern and one possible East Asian finds suggested that Homo sapiens first migrated from Africa between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago.
Hershkovitz and his colleagues conclude that the Misliya jaw “appears to represent the earliest fossil evidence of the migration of members of the H. sapiens clade out of Africa”.
Based on its size and appearance, the archaeologists were able to discount the possibility that the jaw was Neanderthal in origin. However, the finding does present in intriguing boost to an emerging model of ancient human history based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA recovered from Neanderthal remains.
In a 2017 paper in the journal Nature, for instance, a team led by Cosimo Posth of Germany’s University of Tubingen presented evidence that genetic material recovered from a German Neanderthal fossil had accumulated fragments of Homo sapiens DNA as early as 270,000 years ago.
The finding, of course, flew in the face of the seemingly well-supported assumption that such Neanderthal-human interaction could not have happened for until around 170,000 years later.
In presenting the dating evidence for the Misliya find, however, Hershkovitz and his team say their discovery “opens the door” to the possibility that dispersal from Africa occurred “probably” more than 200,000 years ago, citing the Posth as supporting evidence.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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