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Fossil found in Israeli cave may change story of human migration out of Africa

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

The story of how and when modern humans first left Africa may be more ancient and more complex than anyone knew.

This week, anthropologists excavating a collapsed cave in Israel described a Homo sapiens fossil fragment that has been dated to between 194,000 and 175,000 years ago.

It is the earliest known modern human fossil to be found outside Africa.

The discovery, detailed Thursday in the journal Science, provides the first physical evidence that Homo sapiens migrated out of the African continent tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

"For more than 50 years most anthropologists thought modern humans left Africa around 100,000 years ago," said Israel Hershkovitz, the professor of anthropology at Tel Aviv University in Israel who led the work. "This changes the whole concept of modern human evolution."

Rick Potts, a paleoanthroplogist and head of the human origins program at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, said the new study supports a growing body of fossil and genetic evidence that suggests our species made several short-lived forays out of Africa before ultimately dispersing around the globe starting roughly 70,000 years ago.

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"The find leaves open the possibility that Homo sapiens ventured long distances but were not successful in taking up permanent residence in western or eastern Asia," said Potts, who was not involved in the work. "They apparently became extinct."

The recently excavated fossil was found embedded in sediments at an archaeological site known as the Misliya Cave in northern Israel, about 7 miles south of Haifa. The cave, which probably served as a shelter for these hominids, is located on the western slope of Mt. Carmel and is part of a network of caves in the area.

Archaeologists working at the site found evidence that the cave's inhabitants hunted large game like wild cattle and gazelle and were able to control fire. Several small stone tools similar to those associated with Homo sapiens remains in Africa from the same time period were found at Misliya as well.

The newly discovered fossil contains a lower left jawbone with eight teeth still attached. It also includes part of the cheekbone, the roof of the mouth and the bottom of the nasal cavity.

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