Our species seems to have left Africa far earlier than originally thought, about 200,000 years ago, scientists have concluded after the discovery of a partial jawbone bearing seven teeth of a Homo sapien in a cave near Haifa, Israel.
Researchers said Thursday that the modern human fossil is estimated to be 177,000 to 194,000 years-old, and said the teeth bore distinctive traits of Homo sapiens not present in close human relatives alive at the time including Neanderthals.
“What Misliya tells us is that modern humans left Africa not 100,000 years ago, but 200,000 years ago,” Prof Israel Hershkovitz, who led the work at Tel Aviv University, said according to the British newspaper The Guardian. “This is a revolution in the way we understand the evolution of our own species.”
Until now, the oldest Homo sapiens fossils outside Africa had come from two other cave sites in Israel about 90,000 to 120,000 years old. Other fossils have been discovered in China that scientists concluded were about 100,000 years-old.
But the new discovery provides further evidence to support the theory that Homo sapiens first trekked out of Africa through a northern route along the Nile river and not through a mid-continental route across the Bab al-Mandeb strait into the southern coast of Saudi Arabia, India and then Asia. It also supports the theory that humans had left the continent more than 200,000 years ago.
"Now we finally have fossil evidence of this migration, in addition to inferences drawn from ancient DNA studies and archaeological sites," paleoanthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University in New York, a co-author of the study published in the journal Science, said, referring to genetic research suggesting a migration from Africa at least 220,000 years ago and probably earlier.
Homo sapiens first appeared in Africa, with the earliest-known fossils roughly 300,000 years old. Scientists believe that the discovery also confirms that the modern humans were mating and mingling with other existing human species at the time for tens of thousands of years.
Also found inside the large collapsed cave, once inhabited by humans, were blades and other stone tools that were sophisticated for the time, several hearths and burned animal bones.
The Misliya humans were likely nomadic, moving around the landscape following the movements of prey species or according to the seasons of the year, Quam said.
"They were capable hunters of large-game species including wild cattle, deer and gazelles. They also made extensive use of plant materials, including perhaps for bedding," Quam added.