What's so special about a 55,000-year-old skull?
This discovery in a cave in Israel is unlocking human mysteries that have gone unsolved for thousands of years.
The discovery of a small, ancient skull in a long-hidden cave is answering some big questions about the origin of our species.
The skull, believed to be about 55,000 years old, was found during an excavation in Manot Cave in Northern Israel. The team of international archaeologists and anthropologists published its findings in the journal Nature.
The leader of the published report, Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, considers the finding a breakthrough in the study of early humans. Namely, it's the first evidence ever that Neanderthals once coexisted with modern humans.
"It shows, as genetic models predicted, that modern populations, as we know them today, started moving out of Africa only 70,000 years ago," Hershkovitz told From The Grapevine. "All other previous migrations of anatomically modern humans ... died out. Manot is the first evidence for such a migration."
The discovery also fills a historical gap in fossil records. "We have almost no human remains whatsoever from the period between 50,000 and 70,000 [years ago], the most crucial for understanding the formation of modern human populations," Hershkovitz said.
The cave itself was discovered in 2008 after a bulldozer broke ground on nearby development in the Western Galilee region of Israel. Before that, it hadn't been touched in more than 15,000 years. The skull was spotted "resting on a ledge" by amateur speleologists (people who study caves), according to the study.
Because the skull is small, Hershkovitz believes it may have belonged to a woman, though there's no way to be absolutely sure. But what is certain, he said, is that the skull did come from the homo sapien nomenclature. Hershkovitz's team used radioactive uranium to date the skull, which he said is a more accurate method than carbon dating.
The finding, he said, proves that the Mediterranean region, in what is now Israel, is the only place where "modern humans and Neanderthals were living side by side for thousands and thousands of years."
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