Amateur speleologists stumbled upon an ancient partial skull that indicates Homo sapiens were living alongside Neanderthals in the Middle East. The 55,000-year-old incomplete cranium was found deep in a cave in Israel. This find fills a missing part of the story about how Homo sapiens evolved and traveled from Africa to Europe.

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Researchers have no doubt that the partial cranium belonged to a Homo sapien; an anatomically modern human. If the dating of the fossil is accurate, this is solid evidence that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals co-existed in the Middle East. This skull piece, found in Manot Cave near the Sea of Galilee, is the most significant artifact uncovered since the cave was revealed by a bulldozer in 2008.

Previous genome studies suggest that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred sometime between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. Until now, there were no actual remains of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to illustrate that finding. The age of the newly-discovered fossil means that it could have belonged to a man who interbred with Neanderthals.

Related: Did scientists just discover a new kind of ancient human?

Scientists would be thrilled if they could use DNA samples from the skull fragment to prove a genetic relationship to Neanderthals from the same time period, but they fear that genetic material would not have survived on the fossil due to the region’s balmy conditions. Archaeologists are still excavating the area where the ancient skull was discovered, and they hope to find human fossils in cooler areas of the cave where DNA might have remained intact. Research on the specimen is still ongoing, so time will tell what other secrets this cranium might reveal.


Images via Wikimedia and amira_a via Creative Commons.