Has one of history’s most mysterious hook-ups finally been explained by the discovery of a new human species?
About 200,000 years ago, homo sapiens (people like you and me) arrived into what is now known as Israel and mated with an unknown population of early human.
Fossils of those modern humans are the oldest found outside of Africa.
There was evidence they may have mated with Neanderthals, who were thought to originate in Europe.
But who were these unknown people that shared their genes with homo sapiens?
Israeli researchers have found fossils of bones that seem to belong to that missing species at the Nesher Ramla dig site (part of a cement plant) in central Israel.
A key finding is that the Nesher Ramla hominid was an ancestor of both the Neanderthals in Europe and the archaic Homo populations of Asia.
New human species another piece of the puzzle
Professor Israel Hershkovitz headed a team of anthropologists from Tel Aviv University.
In a prepared statement, he said: “The discovery of a new type of Homo is of great scientific importance. 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.
“Even though they lived so long ago, in the late middle Pleistocene (474,000-130,000 years ago), the Nesher Ramla people can tell us a fascinating tale, revealing a great deal about their descendants’ evolution and way of life.”
Who were these people?
The Nesher Ramla hominid shares “features with both Neanderthals (especially the teeth and jaws) and archaic Homo (specifically the skull)”.
At the same time, Nesher Ramla Homo (as it’s now known) is “very unlike modern humans – displaying a completely different skull structure, no chin, and very large teeth”.
And yet, there is evidence that, despite our physical difference, we got along with this long-lost cousin – and indeed that we lived successfully side by side for about 100,000 years.
Interbreeding is no guarantee of a peaceful co-existence.
The evidence comes from sophisticated stone tool-making, notably the process called knapping – where a piece of stone is struck against other stone to shape weapons or flat-faced stone for building walls.
The implication is that homo sapiens and the Nesher Ramala species shared tool-making tips.
The human fossils were found by an archaeological team headed by Dr Yossi Zaidner from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Digging down about eight metres, the excavators found large quantities of animal bones, including horses, fallow deer and aurochs (a wild Eurasian ox that was the ancestor of domestic cattle) – as well as stone tools and human bones dated from 140,000 to 120,000 years ago.
The researchers identified the morphology of the bones – jaw, molar and piece of skull – as belonging to “a new type of Homo, previously unknown to science”.
The authors write: “This evidence shows that these hominins had fully mastered technology that until only recently was linked to either Homo sapiens or Neanderthals.
“Nesher Ramla Homo was an efficient hunter of large and small game, used wood for fuel, cooked or roasted meat, and maintained fires.”
Discovery challenges prevailing thought
Professor Hershkovitz said the discovery of the Nesher Ramla challenges the prevailing hypothesis that the Neanderthals originated in Europe.
He said: “Before these new findings most researchers believed the Neanderthals to be a ‘European story’, in which small groups of Neanderthals were forced to migrate southwards to escape the spreading glaciers, with some arriving in the Land of Israel about 70,000 years ago.
“The Nesher Ramla fossils make us question this theory, suggesting that the ancestors of European Neanderthals lived in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, repeatedly migrating westward to Europe and eastward to Asia.”
He said the research 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”.