Fossilised bones recovered from an ancient sinkhole in Israel may belong to a previously unknown group of extinct humans that lived in the Levant more than 100,000 years ago.
Researchers unearthed the bones alongside stone tools and the remains of horses, fallow deer and wild ox during excavations at the Nesher Ramla prehistoric site near the city of Ramla in central Israel.
The bones, described by one expert as “a major discovery”, have a distinctive combination of Neanderthal and early human features which set them apart from the Homo sapiens that lived in the region at the same time. While the scientists hold back from claiming a new species, they believe the Nesher Ramla individuals may have played an important role in the human story.
Because the oldest Neanderthal fossils were found in Europe, many scientists have suspected that our long-lost cousins originated solely on the continent. But recent studies have cast doubt on that assumption and raised the prospect of a hitherto mysterious group of extinct humans that shaped the evolution of our heavy-browed relatives.
The anatomy of the Nesher Ramla bones is more primitive than those from contemporaneous Neanderthals in Eurasia and Homo sapiens in the Levant, leading the researchers to argue that the group, named the Nesher Ramla Homo, might be the elusive group that contributed to Neanderthal evolution.
“Together with other studies, this work shatters the simple picture of modern humans coming out of Africa and Neanderthals living in Europe. The picture is much more complex,” said Dr Yossi Zaidner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The idea is what we catch here are the last survivors of a population that contributed to the development of Neanderthals. They were living alongside Homo sapiens.”
The analysis, based on a partial skull, a jaw bone and a tooth, has left the scientists wondering whether other early human bones found in the region might be members of the same group. There is debate over the identity of human fossils found in the Qesem and Zuttiyeh, and Tabun caves, all in Israel. These may be contenders to join the Middle Pleistocene individuals found at Nesher Ramla, the researchers write in the journal Science.
The sinkhole where the bones were found was filled in when the scientists came to excavate at the site. But in the distant past, the hole is thought to have contained water and attracted animals, which in turn brought humans who hunted the beasts.
In a second paper in the journal, the researchers describe a haul of stone flakes and points found alongside the human and animal bones, which date to between 120,000 and 140,000 years old. The tool-making techniques used by the Nesher Ramla people were previously only known among Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
In an accompanying commentary published with the papers, Prof Marta Mirazón Lahr, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge, said that early modern humans were present in the Levant about 100,000 to 130,000 years ago.
“The hominin fossils from Nesher Ramla now suggest that a different population, with anatomical features more archaic than those of both humans and Neanderthals, lived in this region at broadly the same time,” she said.
“The interpretation of the Nesher Ramla fossils and stone tools will meet with different reactions among paleoanthropologists. Notwithstanding, the age of the Nesher Ramla material, the mismatched morphological and archaeological affinities and the location of the site at the crossroads of Africa and Eurasia make this a major discovery.”