Excavation reveals previously unknown early human species group

Joint TAU/Hebrew University discovery provides clues about a mystery of human evolution

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Researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have identified a new type of early human group at the Nesher Ramla excavation site, dated to 140,000 to 120,000 years ago. According to the researchers, the morphology of the Nesher Ramla group shares features with both Neanderthals (especially the teeth and jaws) and more archaic populations (specifically the skull). At the same time, this group is very unlike modern humans, displaying a completely different skull structure, no chin, and very large teeth.

Researchers believe that the Nesher Ramla group is the “source” population from which most humans of the Middle Pleistocene developed. In addition, they suggest that this group is the so-called “missing” population that mated with Homo sapiens who arrived in the region around 200,000 years ago, about whom researchers know from a recent study on fossils found in the Misliya cave.

Two teams of researchers took part in the dramatic discovery: an anthropology team from TAU headed by Professor Israel Hershkovitz, Dr. Hila May and Dr. Rachel Sarig from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research and the Shmunis Family Anthropology Institute, situated in TAU’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History; and an archaeological team headed by Dr. Yossi Zaidner from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The research was published in the journal Science.

“The discovery of a new type of human species group is of great scientific importance,” Professor Hershkovitz says. “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 era (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.”

The important human fossil was found by Dr. Zaidner during salvage excavations at the Nesher Ramla prehistoric site, in the mining area of the Nesher cement plant (owned by Len Blavatnik) near the city of Ramla. Digging down about eight meters, the excavators found large quantities of animal bones, including horses, fallow deer and aurochs, as well as stone tools and human bones.

An international team led by the researchers from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem identified the morphology of the bones as belonging to a new type of early human group previously unknown to science. This is the first type of this group to be defined in Israel, and according to common practice, it was named after the site where it was discovered: the Nesher Ramla type.

Professor Hershkovitz adds that the discovery of the Nesher Ramla group challenges the prevailing hypothesis that the Neanderthals originated in Europe. “Before these new findings, most researchers believed the Neanderthals to be a ‘European story’, in which small groups of Neanderthals were forced to migrate southwards to escape the spreading glaciers, with some arriving in the Land of Israel about 70,000 years ago,” he says. “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,” he says.

Despite the absence of DNA in these fossils, Dr. May says, the findings from Nesher Ramla offer a solution to a great mystery in the evolution of human beings: How did genes of Homo sapiens penetrate the Neanderthal population that presumably lived in Europe long before the arrival of Homo sapiens? Geneticists who study the DNA of European Neanderthals have previously suggested the existence of a Neanderthal-like population which they called the “missing population” or the “X population” that had mated with Homo sapiens more than 200,000 years ago.

In the anthropological paper now published in Science, the researchers suggest that the Nesher Ramla group might represent this population, heretofore missing from the record of human fossils. Moreover, the researchers propose that the humans from Nesher Ramla are not the only ones of their kind discovered in the region, and that some human fossils found previously in Israel, which have baffled anthropologists for years — like those from the Tabun cave (160,000 years old), the Zuttiyeh cave (250,000 years old), and the Qesem cave (400,000 years old) — belong to the same new Nesher Ramla human group.

“People think in paradigms,” Dr. Sarig says. “That’s why efforts have been made to ascribe these fossils to known human groups like Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis or the Neanderthals. But now we say: No. This is a group in itself, with distinct features and characteristics. At a later stage small groups of the Nesher Ramla type migrated to Europe, where they evolved into the ‘classic’ Neanderthals that we are familiar with, and also to Asia, where they became archaic populations with Neanderthal-like features. As a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, the Land of Israel served as a melting pot where different human populations mixed with one another, to later spread throughout the Old World. The discovery from the Nesher Ramla site writes a new and fascinating chapter in the story of humankind.”

Prof. Gerhard Weber of Vienna University argues that the story of Neanderthal evolution will be told differently after this discovery. “Europe was not the exclusive refugium of Neanderthals from where they occasionally diffused into West Asia,” he says. “We think that there was much more lateral exchange in Eurasia, and that the Levant is geographically a crucial starting point, or at a least bridgehead, for this process.”

"The discovery from the Nesher Ramla site writes a new and fascinating chapter in the story of humankind."