31 December 2010
400,000-year-old remains may be earliest Homo sapiens
Eight human teeth dating back as far as 400,000 years ago and found at the prehistoric Qesem Cave near Rosh Ha'ayin (Central Israel) could be 'the world's earliest evidence' of modern man (Homo sapiens). Until now, remains of humans from only 200,000 years ago have been found in Africa, and the accepted approach has been that modern man originated on that continent.
Qesem Cave was used from about 400,000 to about 200,000 years ago and was uncovered in 2000 by Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archeology. Later, Prof. Israel Hershkowitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at TAU's Sackler School of Medicine and an international team of scientists performed a morphological analysis on the teeth found in the cave. The examination included CT scans and X-rays indicating the size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man. The teeth found in the cave are also very similar to evidence of modern man dated to around 100,000 years ago that had previously been discovered in the Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel and the Qafzeh Cave in the Lower Galilee near Nazareth.
Gopher and Barkai noted that the findings that characterize the culture of those who dwelled in the Qesem Cave - the systematic production of flint blades, the habitual use of fire, evidence of hunting, cutting and sharing of animal meat, mining raw materials to produce flint tools from subsurface sources and much more - reinforce the hypothesis that this was, in fact, innovative and pioneering behavior that corresponds with the appearance of modern man.
The specimens date back to the Middle Pleistocene era and include permanent and deciduous teeth. They were thus placed chronologically earlier than the bulk of fossil hominin specimens previously known from southwest Asia. Although none of the Qesem teeth resemble those of pre-Homo sapiens Neanderthals, a few traits may suggest some affinities with members of the Neanderthal evolutionary lineage, but the balance of the evidence suggests a closer similarity with the Skhul-Qafzeh dental material, said Gopher and Barkai.
According to the researchers, the discoveries made in the Qesem Cave may change the perception that has been widely accepted to date in which modern man originated on the continent of Africa. In recent years, archeological evidence and human skeletons have been discovered in Spain and China that are liable to undermine this perception, but the findings now uncovered at Qesem are significant and invaluable, and their early age is undoubtedly an extraordinary archeological discovery, said Gopher and Barkai.
Sir Paul Mellars, a prehistory expert at Cambridge University, said the study is reputable, and the find is "important" because remains from that critical time period are scarce, but it is premature to say the remains are human. "Based on the evidence they've sited, it's a very tenuous and frankly rather remote possibility," Mellars said. He said the remains are more likely related to modern man's ancient relatives, the Neanderthals. Teeth are often unreliable indicators of origin, and analyses of skull remains would more definitively identify the species found in the Israeli cave, Mellars added.
Researchers Gopher, Ran Barkai and Israel Hershkowitz published their study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Archaeologist Avi Gopher says further research is needed to solidify his claim. If it does, he says, "this changes the whole picture of evolution."
Edited from The Jerusalem Post (26 December 2010), NPR (27 December 2010), AFP (28 December 2010), Irish Examiner (29 December 2010), EurekAlert! (30 December 2010)