The fossilized remains of a prehistoric human previously unknown to science have been identified by researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The remains, which include a partial skull and jaw from an individual, were uncovered at the Nesher Ramla site and are thought to belong to one of the "last survivors" of a prehistoric human group that lived between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago, according to a study published in the journal Science.
This is the first type of Homo to be defined in Israel. The newly found lineage has been named the "Nesher Ramla Homo type," and its discovery has reshaped the story of human evolution, particularly the understanding of how the Neanderthals emerged, by revealing a great deal about their descendants' evolution and way of life.
Based on the findings, researchers believe that the Nesher Ramla Homo type is the 'source' group from which most Middle Pleistocene humans evolved and that this group is the 'missing' population that mated with Homo sapiens who arrived in the region about 200,000 years ago.
The Nesher Ramla people share characteristics with both Neanderthals, especially the teeth and jaws, and early Homo sapiens, the skull, according to the researchers. It is, however, also significantly different from modern humans, with a completely different skull shape, no chin, and extremely big teeth.
Stone tools and bones of hunted animals were also discovered at the site, and according to an analysis on these, the tools, normally associated with Homo sapiens, were created in the same way that modern humans of the period made their implements, implying that the two groups interacted in some way.
"This is an extraordinary discovery. We had never imagined that alongside Homo sapiens, archaic Homo roamed the area so late in human history," said Dr. Yossi Zaidner of the Hebrew University in a press release, who found the human fossil during salvage excavations at the Nesher Ramla site, near the city of Ramla, in the mining area of the Nesher cement plant. "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."
The discovery of the new type challenges the widely held belief that Neanderthals originated in Europe. It was previously thought that Neanderthals were a "European story", in which small groups of them were forced to move southwards to escape the expanding glaciers, with some reaching Israel about 70,000 years ago.
The newly discovered fossils cast doubt on this theory. This implies that European Neanderthals' ancestors lived in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, migrating westward to Europe and eastward to Asia on many occasions, and that the Neanderthals of Western Europe were only the remnants of a much bigger population formerly resided in the Levant.
"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," explained Dr. Rachel Sarig from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, who partook in the study. "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."