Pushing back the date of the first modern humans found outside Africa

The date that our species, Homo sapiens, left Africa is at least 60,000 years earlier than what we believed until now. This discovery was made by an international team of about thirty scientists, including researchers from Bordeaux. The results were published on January 26th 2018 in the journal Science.

  • 06/02/2018

Site de Mislya Cave © Israel Hershkovitz – Tel Aviv University Site de Mislya Cave © Israel Hershkovitz – Tel Aviv University

The history of our species – Homo sapiens– is longer and probably more complex than scientists had thought. Before now, the earliest modern human fossils found outside the African continent came from two Israeli archeological sites, Skhul and Qafzeh, and were dated around 90,000 to 120,000 years ago.

In the journal Science (end January), an international team of researchers described the oldest modern human fossil ever found outside Africa. The left part of an adult upper jaw, retaining much of its dentition, was found at the archeological site of Mislya Cave, on the slopes of Mount Carmel in the north of Israel, close to the city of Haifa.

To achieve these results, the researchers applied several dating methods to different materials discovered at the site and to the human fossil itself to determine its age. The results suggest that the fossils date from between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago, thus pushing back the date of the first migration by modern man outside Africa by about 60,000 years. In addition, the Misliya fossil is approximately the same age as other Homo sapiens fossils found at two sites in East Africa.

To establish which human species this fossil belonged to, researchers used several approaches: classical anthropological measurements on the jaw and teeth, CT scans to study the internal anatomy and analyze its shape using 3D virtual models. Comparisons with fossils of African, European and Asian hominids and with recent human populations show that the Misliya fossil is, without a doubt, a modern human.

About 160,000 years ago, the ceiling of the Misliya cave collapsed, thus protecting the human fossil and archeological material buried in the sediments. These rich remains reveal that the inhabitants of the Misliya cave hunted large species of game (aurochs, Persian deer, and gazelles) and that they had control over the use of fire in the hearth. They made extensive use of plants and innovative and sophisticated stone-cutting techniques (Middle Paleolithic period), similar to those associated with early modern humans in Africa.

Although older fossils linked to modern humans have been found in north-west Africa, having a better knowledge of the timing and the migration routes of modern humans out of Africa, can help us better understand the evolution of our own species. The Middle East region was certainly an important corridor for migrations of the first humans during the Pleistocene and has been occupied at different times by modern humans, Neanderthals and even earlier human species.

The researchers involved

This discovery was made by an international team involving some thirty scientists, including researchers from the Archeomaterials Research Institute (CNRS /University Bordeaux Montaigne/UTMB/University of Orléans) the Laboratory for Climate and Environmental Sciences (CNRS, CEA, UVSQ-University of Versailles St-Quentin-en-Yvelines) and the Laboratory From Prehistory to the Present Day: culture, environment and anthropology (CNRS /Ministry of Culture/University of Bordeaux). The results were published on 26 January 2018 in Science.

Researchers: Norbert Mercier, researcher with the CNRS at the Archeomaterials Research Institute (CNRS/University Bordeaux Montaigne/University of Orléans/UTBM)* and Hélène Valladas, researcher with the CEA at the Laboratory for Climate and Environmental Sciences (CNRS, CEA/UVSQ-University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines) both worked on dating the deposit. According to these researchers, “these fossils and their dating shed new light on the movements of the first populations of modern humans in the Middle Pleistocene, between Africa and Eurasia”. They add, “this discovery is in line with the genetic data that supports the idea that modern genes spread outside Africa just over 200,000 years ago”.

Laura Martín-Francés, post-doctoral student with IdEx Bordeaux at the Laboratory From Prehistory to the Present Day: culture, environment and anthropology – PACEA (CNRS /Ministry of Culture/University of Bordeaux)* participated in various aspects of the paleoanthropological study of the Miliya remains, especially processing samples for comparisons with other fossil populations, which is necessary in order to show that the jaw belonged to a Homo sapien. She explains that, “this work contributes to a better understanding of our origins. However, it’s not just an anatomical study of fossil remains. In fact, this multidisciplinary joint study, that brings together researchers from different specialties and different institutions throughout the world, also provides a cultural, geographic and chronological context for these fossil remains”.

 *with support from LabEx Bordeaux archeological sciences - LaScarBx

References

Israel Hershkovitz, Gerhard W. Weber, Rolf Quam and al. (2017). The Earliest Modern Humans outside Africa.

Researchers

LAURA MARTIN-FRANCES
Postdoctoral researcher

NORBERT MERCIER
CNRS researcher

Press contact

DELPHINE CHARLES
Head of scientific communication