Prehistoric skull unearthed in Israel may be evolution’s ‘missing link’

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — An unusual prehistoric skull unearthed in Israel may be the “missing link” in human evolution. An international team of scientists say the new species had a flat head, no chin, and huge teeth. The team is also calling the discovery “one of the most important anthropological findings of the last century.”

The hominin, or early human, has been named Nesher Ramla, after the site outside the city of Ramla where researchers found its skull, jaw, and teeth. Co-author Professor Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University says around 140,000 years ago, a very unique group of people lived in Israel. They are believed to be the missing population that mated with Homo sapiens who arrived in the region around 200,000 years ago.

Prehistoric skull found in Israel
Fossil remains of skull and jaw. (Tel Aviv University)

Scientists created virtual 3D reconstructions from the fossilized remains discovered 26 feet beneath ground level at a cement mining plant. Prof. Hershkovitz adds they share features with both Neanderthals – especially the teeth and jaws – and early Homo, specifically the skull. At the same time, it is very unlike modern humans – displaying a completely different skull structure, no chin, and very large teeth.

Human evolution appears ‘much more complex’

Researchers found the fossilized remains alongside stone tools and many human and animal bones, including those of horses, fallow deer, and aurochs. The stunning discovery solves one of the biggest mysteries of human evolution: when and where Neanderthal ancestors arrived in Europe.

“The oldest fossils that show Neandertal features are found in Wesern Europe, so researchers generally believe the Neandertals originated there,” says co-author Prof. Rolf Quam, an anthropologist from Binghamton University, in a release. “However, migrations of different species from the Middle East into Europe may have provided genetic contributions to the Neandertal gene pool during the course of their evolution.”

Some Neanderthal populations carried Homo sapiens genes long before they met in Europe.

“It is clear human evolution was much more complex than we thought before,” says expedition leader Dr. Yossi Zaidna from The Hebrew University in a statement to SWNS. “Human development involved contacts between different human populations.”

Skull may reveal path of human migration

Sophisticated computer software programs compared them with other hominins from Europe, Africa, and Asia. It showed Nesher Ramla represents late survivors of a group who lived in the Middle East during the Middle Pleistocene period.

“The skull fragment that was found in Nesher Ramla is part of the parietal bone. It builds the lateral wall of the skull,” adds co-author Dr. Hila May of Tel Aviv University. “We saw the skull was flat and low which characterizes archaic human shapes.”

Nesher Ramla had a Neanderthal like jaw, but the skull cap that encases the brain appears to be very different and clearly distinct from ours.

“It enables us to make new sense of previously found human fossils, add another piece to the puzzle of human evolution and understand the migrations of humans in the old world. Even though they lived so long ago, in the late middle Pleistocene, the Nesher Ramla people can tell us a fascinating tale, revealing a great deal about their descendants’ evolution and way of life,” Prof. Hershkovitz explains.

Did early human species live in a blended community?

The findings challenge the prevailing idea that Neanderthals originated from Europe with at least some coming from the Levant – or present day Middle East. The region sits at the crossroads of three continents. It is likely that different human groups moved into and out of the area regularly, exchanging genes with the local inhabitants.

Tel Aviv University study team
(Left to Right): Israel Hershkovitz, Marion Prevost, Hila May, Rachel Sarig and Yossi Zaidner.

Researchers believe two types of Homo groups lived side by side for more than 100,000 years, between from 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. They shared knowledge and tool technologies. The Nesher Ramla lived in the region starting around 400,000 years ago. Homo sapiens arrived 200,000 years later. Scientists know this from fossils recently recovered from a cave at nearby Misliya.

Some later Homo fossils found previously in Israel, like those unearthed in the Skhul and Qafzeh caves, do not belong to archaic or early Homo sapiens. Instead, they are of mixed Homo sapiens and Nesher Ramla lineage. It adds to the growing body of evidence that paints a “Lord of the Rings” style world where different human species interbred with each other.

The scenario would explain their variable anatomical features, with Nesher Ramla being the latest addition. Scientists also believe other kinds of hominins are still waiting to be discovered.

“The discovery of a new type of Homo is one of the most important anthropological discoveries of the last century,” Prof. Hershkovitz tells SWNS.

“We had never imagined that alongside Homo sapiens, archaic Homo roamed the area so late in human history,” Dr. Zaidna adds. “The archaeological finds associated with human fossils show that ‘Nesher Ramla Homo’ possessed advanced stone-tool production technologies and most likely interacted with the local Homo sapiens.”

Missing link may reveal early human ‘melting pot’

Despite the absence of DNA, the findings offer a solution to how the genes of Homo sapiens penetrated the Neanderthal population in Europe well before its arrival. Geneticists have previously suggested the existence of a Neanderthal-like population which they called the “missing population” or the “X population” that mated with Homo sapiens more than 200,000 years ago.

This new study suggests it was Nesher Ramla that had been absent from the fossil record, until now.

“At a later stage small groups of the Nesher Ramla Homo type migrated to Europe – where they evolved into the ‘classic’ Neanderthals that we are familiar with, and also to Asia, where they became archaic populations with Neanderthal-like features,” explains co-author Dr. Rachel Sarig. “As a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, the Land of Israel served as a melting pot where different human populations mixed with one another, to later spread throughout the Old World. The discovery from the Nesher Ramla site writes a new and fascinating chapter in the story of humankind.”

Co-author Prof. Gerhard Weber from Vienna University notes the story of Neanderthal evolution will be told differently after this discovery.

“Europe was not the exclusive refugium of Neanderthals from where they occasionally diffused into West Asia,” Weber says. “We think there was much more lateral exchange in Eurasia, and the Levant is geographically a crucial starting point, or at a least bridgehead, for this process.”

The findings appear in the journal Science.

SWNS contributed to this report.