Scientists have discovered the oldest known fossil of a modern human outside of Africa in Misliya Cave near Mount Carmel, Israel. The discovery reveals that modern humans left Africa at least 50,000 years earlier than previously thought. “[The fossil] provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed,” said Binghamton University anthropology professor Rolf Quam.

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The fossil, which consists of an upper jawbone with several teeth still attached, is estimated to be between 175,000-200,000 years old, at least 50,000 years before humans had been thought to have first left Africa. Using microCT scans and 3D virtual models, the research team, including scientists from Tel Aviv University, Binghamton University, and the State University of New York, determined that the fossil showed signs of potential hybridization.

“While all of the anatomical details in the Misliya fossil are fully consistent with modern humans, some features are also found in Neanderthals and other human groups,” said Quam, who was a study co-author. The fossil and archaeological evidence found in the cave also indicates that these early humans in historic Palestine were capable of hunting large game animals, controlling fire for their own uses, and crafting a variety of prehistoric stone tools. “It also means that modern humans were potentially meeting and interacting during a longer period of time with other archaic human groups, providing more opportunity for cultural and biological exchanges.”

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The region in which the fossil was discovered has long been seen as a major passage for human migration out of Africa as well as a home for various species of hominids, including Neanderthals. Piecing together the story of human migration beyond the African continent is essential to understanding the evolution of our species, the researchers emphasized. The latest discovery adds key information to this story, including details regarding the timing and nature of demographic changes and genetic mixing between populations and even species of early humans. With this new chapter, the story of ourselves becomes that much clearer.

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Images via Rolf Quam and Israel Hershkovitz/Tel Aviv University