This has the potential to be a game changing discovery! Israeli scientists have identified a previously unknown prehistoric human through fossils found in an ancient site near Ramla that they think are the “last survivors” of a very ancient group. The exciting bit is that these archaic humans lived next to Homo sapiens over 100,000 years ago, and perhaps even interbred with them. Furthermore, the researchers suggest that they could also be an ancestor of Neanderthals.
Fragments of a skull, jaw and molar belonging to an individual who lived between 140,000 to 120,000 years ago were found with animal bones and stone tools in what was previously a sink hole at the open-air excavation site at Nesher Ramla, Israel. The stone tools are similar to those used by modern humans and Neanderthals in the area. Preshistoric humans may have hunted wild animals that came to drink at a possible water hole, using the tools to butcher the animals as indicated by the animal bones with cut marks found at the site.
However, the fossils are not Homo sapiens, nor do they resemble European or Middle Eastern Neanderthals. Instead they exhibit a mix of archaic and Neanderthal traits, with the jaw and molar similar to Neanderthals and the skull resembling those of archaic members of Homo. This has led the scientists to propose that the fossils with these mixed traits could potentially have been late survivors of an archaic group that was a Middle Eastern source population for both late and early Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, as well as other archaic Asian populations. Conventionally, it has been accepted that Neanderthals arrived in the area comprising Israel from Europe 70,000 to 50,000 years ago but this new discovery has potentially upended that theory due to the fossils being dated at approximately130,000 years ago. Other fossils discovered at different prehistoric sites in Israel belong to the same group according to the research team, indicating that this was a big population that lived in the region and probably migrated to Asia (India and China) and Europe – and also evolved into Neanderthals.
These ancient humans, which have been named Nesher Ramla Homo, coexisted with Homo sapiens, exchanged tool-making technology and perhaps also interbred with them. In fact, some later fossils found by the team in several caves dating back to 100,000 years ago could have been offsprings of Nesher Ramla and H.sapiens. For example, some remains found in the Qfzeh cave in lower Galilee display features belong to both species with some close to modern humans and others to Nesher Ramla.
The team from Tel Aviv University explains in this video:
However, the hypotheses are controversial and not entirely accepted by other scientists. Many believe that the fossils are too young to be ancestors of Neanderthals, whose earliest known ancestor lived 400,000 years ago (found at Sima de los Huesos in Spain). Some believe that the difference in morphology represents regional variations between Midddle Eastern and European Neanderthals, or even a hybrid of different groups of the speces. Other scientists have said that more than anything the fossils show that modern humans and Neanderthals were interacting with each other in the Middle East, earlier than previously thought.
In any case the discovery is still a great example of how different types of ancient humans interacted and even interbred with each other.
The study was published in Science: I. Hershkovitz el al., “A Middle Pleistocene Homo from Nesher Ramla, Israel,” Science (2021).
Meanwhile, a few days later, Chinese researchers revealed another new species identified by an ancient skull that they claim could be our closest evolutionary relative amongst others such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus. It was found in 1933, in Harbin NE China but has only recently been analyzed. Now called Homo longi or Dragon Man, this specimen represents a group of humans that lived in East Asia around 146,000 years ago. Dragon Man represents a branch separate from us and which evolved in this regions for hundreds of thousands of years before going extinct. Study: Ji Q., Wu W., Ji Y., Li Q., and Ni X. (2021). Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species. The Innovation
All in all, the evolution of hominins, eventually leading to us is not as simple as we first thought – but that makes it more exciting!