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10 February 2015
55,000-year-old skull may link us with Neanderthals

A 55,000-year-old incomplete skull discovered deep in Manot Cave in northern Israel fills a major gap in the fossil record of Homo sapiens' journey from Africa to Europe.
     Study leader Israel Hershkovitz, a physical anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, says: "Here we actually hold a skull of a human being that was living next to the Neanderthals."
     Genetic studies of Neanderthals and of both ancient and contemporary humans suggest that the two species interbred somewhere in the Middle East between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, however no remains of anatomically modern humans have been discovered in the Middle East from the period after Homo sapiens left Africa and before it colonised Europe and Asia.
     In 2008, a bulldozer clearing land near the Sea of Galilee revealed an opening to a limestone cave that had been sealed for more than 15,000 years. Amateur explorers later spotted the top portion of a skull resting on a ledge inside the cave. The Israel Antiquities Authority then launched a complete survey, finding buried stone tools at several sites that are still being excavated.
     Hershkovitz says the skull is similar in shape to those of earlier African and later European humans, adding that "the Manot people are probably the forefathers of the early Palaeolithic populations of Europe".
     The cave is not far from two other sites that held Neanderthal remains of a similar age, and Hershkovitz says: "The southern Levant is the only place where anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals were living side by side for thousands and thousands of years". This makes the Manot people leading candidates to have bred with Neanderthals.
     Jean-Jacques Hublin, a palaeo-anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, hopes that further excavations will find human remains that have remained cool enough to still contain DNA, and also connect the skull to artefacts. The artefacts uncovered so far are thought to be much younger than the skull.

Edited from Nature, EurekAlert! (28 January 2015)

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