New Neanderthal fossils found in Israel: was the East so 'close' for our ancestors too?

The recent discovery at the Israeli site of Nesher Ramla of fossil remains which can be traced back to a possible Neanderthal ancestor, brings to light the role of populations from the Near East in the evolution of this extinct human form. The study, which involved researchers from the Department of Environmental Biology at the Sapienza University of Rome and the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florence, was published in the journal Science, which also dedicated a cover page to it

Neanderthals are the extinct human species we know best. It has always been thought that their evolution was entirely endogenous, occurring entirely in Europe starting with Middle Pleistocene populations, and only later involving waves of spread towards Asia.

Today, a new international study, also involving researchers from the Laboratory of Palaeoanthropology and Bioarchaeology of the Department of Environmental Biology, shows that things may actually have been much more complex.

The recent discovery of human fossils at the Middle Palaeolithic site of Nesher Ramla, Israel, suggests that human populations living beyond the Mediterranean may have contributed to the evolutionary process and, specifically, that those from the Near East may have played a significant role.

Although fragmentary, the fossils from Nesher Ramla - portions of a skull, a jawbone and some teeth, all dating between 140 and 120 thousand years ago - show a unique combination of Neanderthal features and more archaic traits.

"This is the confirmation," says Giorgio Manzi, a palaeoanthropologist at Sapienza University of Rome, who took part in the study, "that the human populations of the Middle Pleistocene underwent 'mosaic' evolutionary phenomena, which brought out the typical characteristics of the Neanderthals, as well as those of us Homo sapiens. That is also what we observe in Italy with the skeleton from the Lamalunga cave, near Altamura, southern Italy, in which all the analyses we have been able to carry out so far show a sort of evolutionary blend." 

Neanderthals have been known to palaeoanthropology since the mid-19th century when the first skeleton was found. Since then, discoveries and research into this extinct human race have developed so much so that we now know a great deal about Neanderthals and their history, we can reconstruct their morphology and behaviour, as well as their genetics, to the extent that a small fraction of their DNA is still present in the genome of modern human populations. The recent discovery of new fossils in the Guattari Cave on Mount Circeo, Lazio, Italy, 80 years after discovering one of the most representative skulls of European prehistory, has recently rekindled interest in this human race from remote prehistory in Italy as well. 

"With the new Israeli fossils, we know that the story may have been even more complex and not just confined to Europe," adds Fabio Di Vincenzo, now curator of the anthropology section of the Natural History Museum in Florence, and one of the authors of the new study. "The geography of the Mediterranean area, with its environmental heterogeneity during the Pleistocene, necessarily played a key role in shaping the characteristics of Neanderthals from one end of the continent to the other, including the Balkan regions and the neighbouring Asian areas".

The new artefacts were studied using sophisticated digital techniques that have made it possible to reveal the most hidden and informative features of the brain anatomy of Nesher Ramla's fossil remains and teeth. "Such virtual anthropology methodologies," stresses Antonio Profico, currently a Marie Sklodowska Curie researcher at the University of York, "represent the new standard in anthropological research, and their increasingly widespread use is opening up new and unprecedented horizons for the study of human evolution."  



A Middle Pleistocene Homo from Nesher Ramla, Israel - Israel Hershkovitz, Hila May, Rachel Sarig, Ariel Pokhojaev, Dominique Grimaud-Hervé, Emiliano Bruner, Cinzia Fornai, Rolf Quam, Juan Luis Arsuaga, Viktoria A. Krenn, Maria Martinón-Torres, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Laura Martín-Francés, Viviane Slon, Lou Albessard-Ball, Amélie Vialet, Tim Schüler, Giorgio Manzi, Antonio Profico, Fabio Di Vincenzo, Gerhard W. Weber, Yossi Zaidner - Science 2021 DOI: 10.1126/science.abh3169


Further Information 

Giorgio Manzi
Laboratory of Palaeoanthropology and Bioarchaeology
Department of Environmental Biology

Friday, 25 June 2021

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