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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

Ideally, anthropologists would examine a full skull before determining how to categorize an ancient specimen. For example, a small face tucked underneath a forehead and a rounded brain case clearly indicates Homo sapiens rather than another species, Potts said.

In this case, however, the research team did not have that option. Instead, they compared precise measurements of the size and shape of the teeth and the jawbone with other ancient hominid fossils from Europe and Africa. In this way, they were able to show that the fossil's features had the most in common with our species.

The researchers who studied the Misliya-1 fossil explain what it can tell us about human migration out of Africa.

"Nothing we found was inconsistent with it being Homo sapiens, and some features clearly indicated it was Homo sapiens," said Rolf Quam, a paleoanthropologist at Binghamton University in New York who worked on the study.

Potts said the multiple lines of evidence that the researchers used to make the ID were persuasive for him.

"Barring definitive evidence of a complete brain case plus face, the authors have done their best to convince us that Homo sapiens is the best classification. Or at least I'm convinced," he said.

The research team used three different methods of dating the fossil and the sediments around it. They dated the age of tooth samples using uranium-thorium, turned to combined electron spin resonance techniques to date enamel samples, and relied on thermoluminescence to determine the age of burnt tools associated with the fossil. Together, they suggest that the jaw fragment is between 175,000 and 194,000 years old.

"Before the Misliya, fossil the earliest known human fossils outside of Africa were 100,000 years old," Quam said. "This pushes that back by at least 75,000 years."

He added that along with the recent discovery of the oldest human fossil in Africa dating to about 300,000 years ago, and genetic analysis that shows Neanderthals were mating with humans at least 220,000 years ago, the new find suggests the story of human evolution and migration goes back much further than anyone realized.

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"You have several different lines of evidence coming together that the origin of Homo sapiens is earlier than we thought, and now we have fossil evidence of an earlier migration of modern humans out of Africa," Quam said.

Potts, who described the findings as important, said they have already gotten him thinking about more lines of inquiry.

"The big question for me is, why weren't those pioneering groups successful in a longer-term way?" he said. "And what was it about African Homo sapiens after 75,000 years ago that made the difference, leading to the rapid and more permanent colonization of the planet?"

In other words, the mystery of our origins, and our dispersal, continues.

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