An ancient skull fragment discovered in a cave in western Galilee may be the earliest link to the first modern humans to migrate out of Africa and successfully colonise the world.
The lack of genetic diversity in today’s non-African modern human populations suggests that only a very small group, possibly as few as 150 people, crossed the Red Sea out of Africa sometime before 60,000 years ago.
The skull, which probably belonged to a woman, reveals that their descendants had reached the Near East by 55,000 years ago. Her community may have given to rise to the first modern humans to reach Europe by around 43,000 years ago.
The skull, which shares features with both early European and African modern humans, was discovered perched on a rocky shelf in a side chamber of the enormous Manot cave. How it got there is a mystery, but it could have been placed there intentionally by someone who shared the cave with her.
The original entrance to the Manot cave collapsed around 30,000 years ago, completely sealing off the contents until a bulldozer accidentally broke through the roof while cutting a sewer trench for a nearby village.
The land around Manot cave was already well-established Neanderthal territory by the time the first modern human migrants arrived, and this area of Galilee may have been the first location that the two species interbred. Genetic studies suggest that today’s non-Africans acquired their small portion of Neanderthal DNA in western Asia in the same 50,000 to 60,000-year-old timeframe. Neanderthal skeletons from the same period have also been discovered from the Amud cave 24 miles to the east of Manot cave, and from Kebara cave 30 miles to the south.
Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University said of the discovery:
“We couldn’t believe our eyes. We immediately realised it was a prehistoric cave and that it had been inhabited for a very long time. Because the entrance had collapsed so long ago, it had been frozen in time. Nobody had been inside for 30,000 years.
“There is a huge central cave and several beautiful side chambers. In one side chamber, the skull was lying there on top of a rocky shelf. It was there waiting for us. We just had to pick it up.
“Manot is the best candidate for the interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals and there is really no other candidate. The people at Manot cave are the only population we know of that shared the same geographical region for a very long period of time.”