But should we be surprised?
With an age range of 120,000 to 90,000 years old, the fossils from the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh have long been the oldest known anatomically modern human remains from outside Africa. The recent find of an upper jawbone and associated dentition at Misliya Cave in Israel has now been independently dated by uranium series (U-Th), combined uranium and electron spin resonance (U-ESR), and thermoluminescence (TL) methods to yield an age range of 194,000 to 177,000 years old. The jawbone and teeth are associated with the Homo sapiens clade, meaning that they predate the Skhul and Qafzeh remains by more than 50,000 years. (Hershkovitz, et al., 2018)
The Misliya Cave remains were associated with large numbers of Levallois (mode 3) stone tools, characteristic of the Middle Palaeolithic.
While the findings have understandably generated a good deal of excitement, should we be unduly surprised? The Sahara and Sinai deserts can only be crossed during interglacials, when warm, wet climatic conditions cause these normally inhospitable regions to green, and the Levant effectively becomes a northeasterly extension of Africa. The date range of the Skhul and Qafzeh remains suggest that these people left Africa during the Eemian interglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 5e) 126,000 to 110,000 years ago. Similarly, the upper end of the age range of Misliya Cave remains lies within the warm, wet Marine Isotope Stage 7 which lasted from 245,000 to 186,000 years ago.
Until recently, the earliest anatomically modern humans were believed to be those from Omo, Kenya, now thought to be 195,000 years old (though originally thought to be more recent). Accordingly, it was not thought that modern humans could have left Africa prior to the Eemian. Recent discoveries from China and the Arabian Peninsula have overturned the longstanding view that the Levant was the extent of our species’ excursions beyond Africa prior to around 65,000 years ago. However, the Eemian was still thought to represent the upper limit.
The re-dating of the Jebel Irhoud remains from Morocco last year has changed the picture. The remains were found at a cave site 100 km (60 miles) from Marrakech in the early 1960s and were originally thought to be no more than 40,000 years old. The puzzle was that while the facial features are modern, the brain case is still long and low, a characteristic of archaic humans and suggesting that they really belonged to a much earlier lineage of Homo sapiens. This eventually turned out to be the case. In 2007, the remains were found to be much older at 160,000 years old with US-ESR methods – but even this turned out to be a gross underestimate. Excavations carried out between 2004 and 2011 enabled radiation dosages to be estimated more accurately, yielding a TL date of 286,000 ± 32,000 years old – making the Jebel Irhoud the earliest representatives of our species by some considerable way.
With modern humans having existed throughout Marine Isotope Stage 7, it is unsurprising that some of them reached the Levant, and entirely possible that some went further. This raises the possibility that some of these pioneers encountered and interbred with Neanderthals, which would explain a 2017 genetic study which suggested that Neanderthals and modern humans were interbreeding as long ago as the period between 460,000 and 219,000 years ago (Posth, et al., 2017). The upper end is clearly an overestimate, but the lower end could point to interbreeding in the Levant, where Neanderthals are known to have been present. While there is no suggestion at this stage that modern humans reached Europe prior to 46,000 years ago, such a discovery would call into question the attribution of recent discoveries, such as the stone circle Bruniquel Cave in southwest France reported in 2016 to be 176,500 years old, and accordingly assumed to be the work of Neanderthals. (Jaubert, et al., 2016)
Hershkovitz, I. et al., 2018. The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, Volume 359, pp. 456-459.
Jaubert, J. et al., 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature, 2 June, Volume 534, pp. 111-114.
Posth, C. et al., 2017. Deeply divergent archaic mitochondrial genome provides lower time boundary for African gene flow into Neanderthals. Nature Communications, 4 July, Volume 8, p. 16046.