It’s accepted that anatomically modern humans originated 200,000 years ago in Africa, but scientists and scholars cannot seem to agree on the migration patterns of H. sapiens that led to the population of the planet or what role, if any, that played in the extinction of our cavemen cousins, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). The discovery of a 55,000-year-old partial, though very well-preserved, human skull in what was Neanderthal territory at the time confirms one of the main points of contention: Homo sapiens and Neanderthals did, in fact, coexist in the same geographic area for a period of time.

Scientists have been puzzled over a discrepancy in the fossil record. By the look of things, the fossil record suggests there were anatomically modern humans in today’s Middle East about 100,000 years ago. However, human genome studies have found that the modern global population of humans descended from a single group of H. sapiens that migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago and into Europe only 45,000 years ago. What’s the deal with the almost-30,000-year gap? What were humans doing in the time between their leaving Africa and their arrival in Europe?

New Light on Human Migration

This study by Tel Aviv University with the Dan David Laboratory for the Search and Study of Modern Humans at the Steinhardt Museum and National Research Center, published in Nature this week, looked at the morphology and physical characteristics of the skull — discovered in the Manot Cave of Israel’s Western Galilee and dated to 55,000 years ago — and confirmed that’s it’s an anatomically modern human of African origin.

According to the study authors, the skull disproves two narratives: that modern humans descended from populations that migrated out of Africa 100,000 years ago and that modern human populations interbred with Neanderthals after they migrated into Europe in the Upper Paleolithic, or Late Stone Age, less than 40,000 years ago. Instead, this skull indicates that anatomically modern humans met, coexisted, and interbred with Neanderthals in Israel earlier than their expansion into Europe and passing those genes along to the rest of the world.

Since all modern humans are descended from the out-of-Africa populations that migrated 70,000 years ago, we have to assume that all earlier migratory events, including the group that left Africa 100,000 years ago, were a dead end and contributed nothing to the human genome. However, until the discovery of the Manot skull this was only a rationalization with no physical or genetic evidence to back it up.

This discovery also has some interesting implications regarding the 30,000-year gap between the two migratory events. After the failure of the earlier migration, the second migration reached the Levantine corridor in today’s Middle East where they settled and coexisted with the Neanderthals until approximately 45,000 years ago when they moved into Europe and taking Neanderthal genes with them. This also indicates that the population of modern humans that coexisted with Neanderthals in Israel, referred to as the Manot people, are indeed the ancestors of all subsequent European Homo sapien populations.

Analysis of the traits of the skull shows a mixture of both archaic and modern Homo sapien traits, or somewhere in between the initial out-of-Africa migration and the expansion into Europe. Specifically, there were traits suggestive of the Manot group had origins in Africa, but also had features that would come to be associated with later H. sapien populations in Europe.There have been numerous studies into Neanderthals including attempts to identify whether modern humans have any genetic relation to the extinct cavepeoples. Genetic analysis of Neanderthals have found that less than one percent (0.12% to be precise) of their DNA is different from ours. For a long time it was hypothesized that Homo sapiens had contact with the Neanderthals and probably led to the Neanders’ extinction. Then it was suggested that perhaps there was even interbreeding. Nowadays it’s widely accepted that there was, in fact, interbreeding between H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, although when, where, and to what extent the two separate species coexisted has been subject to much debate.

Although modern humans are blamed for the extinction of the Neanderthals, this study proves that the ancestors of the Europeans in fact lived side by side with the Neanderthals — sharing tools, communicating, working together — peacefully for quite a long period of time; however, it’s possible this is the only place on Earth where peaceful coexistence between modern humans and Neanderthals occurred.

What do you think about the idea that we humans coexisted with Neanderthals? Is this a revolutionary idea or common sense? Comment below.

Additional reading:

Paleolithic skull in Israel sheds like on humans’ path from Africa | CNN
New skull from group that interbred with Neanderthals | Scientific American
Skull discovery suggests location where humans first had sex with Neanderthals | The Guardian
Homo neanderthalensis | Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Neanderthals and humans first mated 50,000 years ago | LiveScience
Scientists identify Neanderthal genes in modern human DNA |
Oldest human genome sequenced reveals Neanderthal mixing | IFLScience
Why Am I Neanderthal? | National Geographic

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About the author

My name is Dane. I'm a writer at Android Authority as well as a tech journalist in general. As well, I'm a marketing guru, designer, and a budding web developer. My passions include portmanteaus, artisanal coffees, jackets, and the smell of fresh technology in the morning.