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55,000-Year-Old Skull Sheds Light on Early Human Migration

Image: Manot Cave
A worker sits inside the Manot Cave in Israel's Galilee region, where a 55,000-year-old skull has shed new light on human migration patterns. Amos Frumkin / Hebrew Univ. Cave Research Center

Long ago, humans left their evolutionary cradle in Africa and passed through the Middle East on their way to Europe. Now scientists have found the first fossil remains that appear to document that journey, a partial skull from an Israeli cave.

The skull dates from around 55,000 years ago, fitting into the period when scientists had thought the migrants inhabited the area. And details of its anatomy resemble ancient skulls from Europe, Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University in Israel says. He and his colleagues present their findings in a paper published Wednesday by the journal Nature.

The skull, which lacks facial features and its base, was found in Manot Cave in the Galilee region of northern Israel. The migrants are called modern humans because of their anatomy. The earliest remains of modern humans in Europe date to about 45,000 years ago.

Experts not connected with the work were impressed. "This is the first evidence we have of the humans who made this journey," apart from some ancient tools, said Eric Delson of Lehman College and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen in Germany said the skull gives clues about the anatomy of the migrants. Since Neanderthals were already known to inhabit the area, the skull also documents that they and modern humans co-existed there — and could have interbred, as demonstrated independently by genetic analysis.

— The Associated Press