Previously unknown ancient hominin discovered in Israel

A team of researchers has identified 140,000-year-old fossilised remains found in Israel as belonging to a previously unknown type of ancient hominin, which may have been an early precursor of Neanderthals that co-existed alongside other prehistoric groups, including Homo sapiens.

At the Nesher Ramla site in Israel, excavation work uncovered the fossilised remains of an archaic individual’s mandible, with well-preserved teeth, and parietal (cranial) bones.

Researchers from the University of Vienna, the University of Tel Aviv, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem successfully dated the remains to between 120,000 and 140,000 years ago.

Photo: © Avi Levin and Ilan Theiler, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University.

According to anthropologist Dr Gerhard Weber from the University of Vienna: ‘When we looked at the fossils, we initially thought it was an atypical Neanderthal that we were looking at.’

After applying methods of virtual anthropology, and conducting morphological comparisons with other existing fossils, the team found the individual exhibited a mixture of both archaic and Neanderthal traits.

Based upon these findings, published in Science, the team theorises that this individual descended from an ancient Homo lineage, which they have named the ‘Nesher Ramla Homo’, that existed in the Levant some 400,000 years ago, and migrated in waves into Europe and Asia as the forerunners of the Neanderthals.

It is believed this ‘intermediate’ group lived during the late Middle Pleistocene (420,000-130,000 years ago).

It was previously thought that the ‘classic Neanderthal’ had evolved in Europe around 100,000 years ago, and only migrated into West and Central Asia in the last 70,000 years.

Other similar fossils found by archaeologists at Qesem Cave, Zuttiyeh, and Tabun in the Near East also seem to exhibit this mixture of traits manifested in the Nesher Ramla people.

Digging 8m deep, the excavation team also uncovered faunal and stone-tool assemblages in stratigraphic association with the fossilised skeletal remains. Photo: © Israel Hershkovitz and Yossi Zaidner, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University Jerusalem.

This new evidence reshapes our understanding of human evolution, as it tells us the Neanderthals did not have a wholly European lineage.

‘Whether all Neanderthals in the world are descendants of Nesher Ramla people cannot be answered, but at least it is very likely that this population has had an impact generally on Neanderthal evolution, and Neanderthals are a mixture of European and Asian pre-forms,’ Dr Weber told The Past.

The discovery of Nesher Ramla Homo is also significant in confirming that the different human species co-existed alongside one another and were genetically similar enough to interbreed. If the first modern humans from Africa intermingled with the Nesher Ramla group 130,000 years ago it explains how modern human genes penetrated the Neanderthal genome so early on, as they could not have interacted in Europe at that time.

Dr Weber added that the morphological similarities between the Near Eastern fossils and the Neanderthals from the 430,000-year-old site of Sima de los Huesos in Spain may be evidence of an early influx of Nesher Ramla into Europe.

Analysis of the stone-tool and faunal assemblages discovered in association with the remains has shed more light on the Nesher Ramla Homo, revealing they possessed advanced stone-tool production technologies, were efficient in hunting game, and used fire for cooking.