Culture

Ancestor of European Neanderthals May Have Been Found in Israel

Fragments of early human found in Israel. Photo from Twitter.

A new type of ancient human has been unearthed in Israel, a find that Dr. Hila May of Tel Aviv University said reshapes the story of human evolution.

“It all started in Israel. We suggest that a local group was the source population,” she told BBC News. “During interglacial periods, waves of humans, the Nesher Ramla people, migrated from the Middle East to Europe.”

“The finds consist of a partial skull and jaw from an individual who lived between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago,” according to the BBC. That would mean that “Nesher Ramla Homo type” — the name scientists have given the new human lineage — walked the earth at the same time as modern humans and may have even bred with them.

The significance of the new find lies in finding pre-Neanderthal bones in Israel rather than Europe, where such a discovery would be expected.

The team thinks that early members of the Nesher Ramla Homo group were already present in the Near East some 400,000 years ago. The researchers have noticed resemblances between the new finds and ancient “pre-Neanderthal” groups in Europe.

“This is the first time we could connect the dots between different specimens found in the Levant” said Dr Rachel Sarig, also from Tel Aviv University.

The research team is also connecting the Nesher Ramla bones to archaic humans in Asia as they demonstrate some of the same characteristics. But other experts think that’s a stretch.

The researchers base their claims on similarities in features between the Israeli fossils and those found in Europe and Asia, though their assertion is controversial. Prof Chris Stringer, from the Natural History Museum in London, UK, has recently been assessing Chinese human remains.

“Nesher Ramla is important in confirming yet further that different species co-existed alongside each other in the region at the time and now we have the same story in western Asia,” he said.

“However, I think it’s a jump too far at the moment to link some of the older Israeli fossils to Neanderthals. I’m also puzzled at suggestions of any special link between the Nesher Ramla material and fossils in China.”

Thanks to many recent discoveries, the archaic human past has been slowly coming into focus. There were different human ancestors that existed side by side about 100,000-200,000 years ago in the near east, Asia, and Europe. And modern humans interacted with all of them.

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Homo sapiens apparently traded tools with Nesher Ramla people as well as their ancestors in Asia. And they may have traded women. too. This find may answer a vexing question about how human genes ended up being found in Neanderthals long before modern humans made it to Europe. If the answer is that the Neanderthals evolved from Nesher Ramla homos, that would be a find of stunning significance.

Look at human evolution not as a tree but as a jigsaw puzzle. The problem is that there are no discernible edges to this puzzle. You can only connect fragments of it. Worse, we don’t even know what picture is represented by the puzzle.

Nesher Ramla may just be another fragment — a large one, but not very illuminating of the big picture. But as more pieces of the puzzle are found, the find in Israel may loom as large as any recent discovery.