The story of the evolution of human beings from their most primitive and ancient ancestors has just gotten a whole lot more interesting. In the Levant
The story of the evolution of human beings from their most primitive and ancient ancestors has just gotten a whole lot more interesting. In the Levant, often described as the crossroads of western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and northeast Africa, fossil evidence has just revealed a new kind of Homo species that we didn’t know about, which lived side by side with Homo sapiens more than 120,000 years ago. This pre-Neanderthal Homo species has been called the Nesher Ramla Homo – the name referring to the site at which it was found, in Israel.
This challenges the notion that “ Neanderthals originated and flourished on the European continent”, as per two studies published in the most recent edition of Science. “These specimens represent the late survivors of a Levantine Middle Pleistocene paleodeme that was most likely involved in the evolution of the Middle Pleistocene Homo in Europe and East Asia.”
The fossil remains of the skull and jaw (Tel Aviv University / Science)
The Excavations at Nesher Ramla
According to the researchers from the Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the morphology of the Nesher Ramla Homo shares features with both Neanderthals (teeth and jaws) and Homo sapiens (the skull), but is very distinct from modern humans. The skull structure is different, the teeth are very large and the chin is almost entirely absent! Using the help of modern technology, virtual reconstruction, analysis and comparison of these bones were done against other fossilized hominin bones, followed by bone morphology.
Dr. Yossi Zadner, heading archaeology team number two from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the one who made the lucky discovery at the open-air site at Nesher Ramla. His team dug 8 meters (26 feet) into the mining area of the Nesher cement plant, and found large quantities of animal bones, including horses, fallow deer and aurochs, as well as stone tools and human bones.
The excavation site at Nesher Ramla cement works where the new Homo species was found. (Yossi Zaidner)
The best part? “The Nesher Ramla Homo type is probably the ‘source’ population from which most of the humans of the Middle Pleistocene developed”, according to a statement released by Tel Aviv University . This group is probably the missing link in the vast timeline of human evolution, as it is this group that Homo sapiens mated with, having arrived in the region some 200,000 years ago. They deduced that the Nesher Ramla Homo was a dual ancestor of both the European Neanderthals and the archaic Homo populations of Asia.
The Middle Pleistocene, or Chibanian, which lasted from 770,000 years ago to 126,000 years ago, is a key moment in human evolution. The Chibanian includes the transition in paleoanthropology from the Lower to the Middle Paleolithic, which is the time period which saw the emergence of the Homo sapiens sapiens , or modern humans .
Static skull & mandible & parietal orthographic. (Tel Aviv University / Science )
Changing the Human Origins Timeline
Dr. Rachel Sarig from the Sackler University of Medicine told the BBC:
“There are several human fossils from the caves of Qesem, Zuttiyeh and Tabun that date back to that time that we could not attribute to any specific known group of humans. But comparing their shapes to those of the newly uncovered specimen from Nesher Ramla justify their inclusion within the [new human] group.”
She is, of course, referring to previously found fossils from the region that have for long baffled anthropologists and historians. The Nesher Ramla Homo is probably one of many groups that existed in this historical region. Fossilized human remains have been found in Israel at Tabun cave (dated to 160,000 years ago), Zuttiyeh Cave (250,000 years ago) and Qesem Cave (400,000 years ago).
According to Professor Israel Hershkovitz, heading the anthropology team from the Tel Aviv University, “The discovery of a new type of Homo is of great scientific importance. It enables us to make new sense of previously found human fossils, add another piece to the puzzle of human evolution, and understand the migrations of humans in the old world. Even though they lived so long ago, in the late middle Pleistocene (474,000-130,000 years ago), the Nesher Ramla people can tell us a fascinating tale, revealing a great deal about their descendants’ evolution and way of life.”
New Homo Species Challenges the Euro-Centric Neanderthal Story
Professor Hershkovitz also added that the discovery of the fossil challenged the notion of Neanderthals being a European story, wherein small groups were forced to migrate southwards to escape the spreading glaciers. They would arrive in Israel, and the general Levant area, some 70,000 years ago. The new discovery completely alters this theory and timeline, as there is now evidence of human presence here as early as 400,000 years ago!
“The Nesher Ramla fossils make us question this theory, suggesting that the ancestors of European Neanderthals lived in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, repeatedly migrating westward to Europe and eastward to Asia. In fact, our findings imply that the famous Neanderthals of Western Europe are only the remnants of a much larger population that lived here in the Levant – and not the other way around,” Professor Hershkovitz noted.
A virtual reconstruction of the Nesher Ramla lower jaw-bone of the new Homo species. (Ariel Pokhojaev/Sackler Faculty of Medicine / University of Tel Aviv)
Dr. Sarig added that this was newly discovered fossil was a distinctive group in itself, which could not be ascribed to or associated with previously existing hominin groups. It is from the Levant that Nesher Ramla Homo migrated, moving to Europe (and evolving into the classic Neanderthal), and Asia, where further evolution occurred. In fact, Levant becomes a starting point of cultural confluence and migration into the Old World.
Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man (published in 1871) argued that modern human beings shared a recent common ancestor with the great African apes, essentially placing Africa as the cradle of human civilization. It is from here that mass migration occurred across the board to other continents, and in this light the discovery of the Nesher Ramla Homo cannot be understated. In fact, the story of humankind is never going to be the same again, and greater attention must be paid to this region from where human fossils have been found, dating back to almost 400,000 years ago.
Top image: Static skull, mandible & parietal orthographic of the new Homo species. Source: Tel Aviv University / Science .
By Rudra Bhushan
Ghosh, P. 2021. New type of ancient human discovered in Israel . Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57586315.
Hershkovitz, I., May, H., et al . 2021. A Middle Pleistocene Homo from Nesher Ramla, Israel . Science, 372 (6549). Available at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6549/1424.
Starr, M. 2021. A previously unknown type of ancient human has been discovered in the Levant . Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-found-hints-of-a-previously-unknown-type-of-ancient-human.
Zaidner, Y., Centi, L., et al. 2021. Middle Pleistocene Homo behavior and culture at 140,000 to 120,000 years ago and interactions with Homo sapiens . Science, 372 (6549). Available at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6549/1429.