JERUSALEM: Israeli researchers said Thursday (Jun 24) they had found bones belonging to a "new type of early human" previously unknown to science, shedding new light on the course of human evolution.
Archeological digs near the city of Ramla by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem uncovered prehistoric remains that could not be matched to any known species from the Homo genus, which includes modern humans (Homo sapiens).
In a study published in the journal Science, University of Tel Aviv anthropologists and archaeologists led by Yossi Zaidner dubbed the find the "Nesher Ramla Homo type" after the site where the bones were found.
Dating to between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago, "the morphology of the Nesher Ramla humans shares features with both Neanderthals ... and archaic Homo," the researchers said in a statement.
"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 fragments of a skull and a lower jaw with teeth were about 130,000 years old and could force a rethink of parts of the human family tree, the researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said.
TOOLS AND BONES
Excavators uncovered the bones about 8m deep among stone tools and the bones of horses and deer.
"This is what makes us suggest that this Nesher Ramla group is actually a large group that started very early in time and are the source of the European Neanderthal," said Hila May, a physical anthropologist at the Dan David Center and the Shmunis Institute of Tel Aviv University.
Experts have never been able to fully explain how Homo sapiens genes were present in the earlier Neanderthal population in Europe, May said, and the Nesher Ramla may be the mystery group responsible.
The jaw bone had no chin and the skull was flat, she said. 3D shape analysis later ruled out relation to any other known group.
What they did match, May said, were a small number of enigmatic human fossils found elsewhere in Israel, dating back even earlier, that anthropologists had never been able to place.
"The archaeological finds associated with human fossils show that 'Nesher Ramla Homo' possessed advanced stone-tool production technologies and most likely interacted with the local Homo sapiens," archaeologist Zaidner said.
"We had never imagined that alongside Homo sapiens, archaic Homo roamed the area so late in human history".
The researchers suggested that some fossils previously discovered in Israel dating back as far as 400,000 years could belong to the same prehistoric human type.
The Nesher Ramla discovery calls into question the widely-accepted theory that Neanderthals first emerged in Europe before migrating south.
"Our findings imply that the famous Neanderthals of Western Europe are only the remnants of a much larger population that lived here in the Levant - and not the other way around," anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University 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."
Dentist and anthropologist Rachel Sarig of Tel Aviv University said the find suggested that "as a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, the Land of Israel served as a melting pot where different human populations mixed with one another, to later spread throughout the Old World."
Small groups of the Nesher Ramla type likely migrated into Europe, later evolving into Neanderthals, and Asia, developing into populations with similar features, Sarig said.