A 55,000-year-old skull found in a cave near Nahariya in northern Israel has been described as a “key piece in the puzzle of human evolution”.
The words belong to anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, one of the authors of a paper in Nature describing the find in the Manot cave in western Galilee.
The limestone cave was discovered by accident in 2008 when a bulldozer opened a hole in the cavern’s ceiling while digging a sewer for a nearby village. Palaeontologists abseiled into the cave in 2010 and found the skull sitting on a shelf.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes. We immediately realised it was a prehistoric cave and that it had been inhabited for a very long time,” Hershkovitz said. “Because the entrance had collapsed so long ago, it had been frozen in time.”
The skull was missing its face and jaw. It belonged to an anatomically modern human and included an “archaic” protrusion at the base of the skull.
The Manot cave people “could be closely related to the first modern humans who later successfully colonised Europe,” Hershkovitz said. “Manot, in terms of time and location, is the best candidate for the love story that scientists talk about between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.”
Hershkovitz said genetic analysis of modern humans indicate they came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and began interbreeding with Neanderthals. According to genetic models, the first intermingling likely took place in the Levant.
Tools made from stone and bone, and bone fragments from hyena, deers, gazelles and humans dating from 45,000 to 20,000 years ago have also been found in the cave. Excavations are continuing.
More on this topic from COSMOS: The Neanderthals live on in us