After studies lasting over a decade, scientists revealed the Nesher Ramla fossils, unearthed in 2010 near Ramla, Israel. These early human fossils represent a new piece to the puzzle of human evolution from the Levant along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
According to LiveScience, the Nasher Ramla bones may be a new member of the human family tree, previously unknown to science. However, Israel Hershkovitz, lead author of a Science paper describing the bones, emphasized they represent a type of early human, but not a new species. Instead, the Nesher Ramla fossil’s position on our family tree is “a million-dollar question.”
“One of the problems in human paleontology is the plethora of species … I believe that the story is much simpler: almost all Homo paleodeme (a group of people that can be recognized by their morphological features), belong to a single species,” Hershkovitz said.
The fossils dubbed Nesher Ramla after the excavation site date to 120,00 years ago at the end of the Middle Pleistocene. However, these early humans share similarities with archaic hominins that lived 450,000 years ago.
Possibly, they may be the forerunners of Neanderthals, challenging the idea that Neanderthals originated in Europe.
“For many years, the dominant interpretation among our colleagues was that Neanderthals came from Europe, only from Europe,” said Rachel Sarig, a dental anthropologist at Tel Aviv University and a co-author of one of the new papers. “And now we bring new data, and based on the new data, we suggest a new interpretation for this complex issue of human evolution.”
Ancient Humans that Iterbred With Our Ancestors
The Nasher Ramla hominids lived with Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Possibly, they may have interbred with early humans for 100,000 years. Therefore, the discovery indicates complex interactions between different human species. In the Middle East, three continents converge, and groups of humans were probably migrating through regularly.
“This is a complicated story, but what we are learning is that the interactions between different human species in the past were much more convoluted than we had previously appreciated,” said Rolf Quam, a Binghamton University anthropology professor.
In 2010, a cement company at an Israeli lime quarry accidentally uncovered archaeological remains. After digging down 26 feet, archaeologists also found horse bones and bones from deer, tortoises, gazelles, and a type of extinct cattle called aurochs. See one of the auroch bones in the tweet below.
Additionally, they found evidence of butchering and fire. Plus, researchers unearthed advanced stone tool implements possibly used to make spears and arrows.
Multiple Groups Sharing Culture and Learning
Yossi Zaidner, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who found the fossils, believes the dig site indicates the archaic hominins may have created the tools, despite their apparent smaller braincase. Then, they may have passed on the toolmaking skills to Homo sapiens and other hominin groups.
Similarly, Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who was unaffiliated with the research, believes the findings indicate multiple species were sharing knowledge.
“The Nesher Ramla fossils certainly complicate a straightforward evolutionary story, which traditionally hinged on exclusive occupation of the Levant by either Neanderthals or Homo sapiens,” said Petraglia. “Instead, there may be multiple species around at the same time, sometimes interbreeding, learning from one another and sharing in their cultural behaviors.”
However, other scientists suggest more research is required before being certain about cultural exchanges between species.
Modern Humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans
Although the Nesher Ramla bones are unique, they most closely match bones from a cave in northern Spain called the “Pit of Bones.” There, the bones share similarities with the Denisovans, the Neanderthals, and early modern humans. Thus, the researchers suspect the Nesher Ramla hominins mingled with all of these groups in the distant past.
Although Homo sapiens is the only Homo species remaining today, it appears we have DNA contributions from all of these early humans. Additionally, an artificially intelligent algorithm points to a possible third “lost species” from our past. A mysterious hominin that may have been a hybrid of Neanderthals and Denisovans remains to be discovered.
How all of these early humans fit together remains mysterious. However, the Nesher Ramla fossils show that multiple groups lived together in the Levant for a very long time.
“The implications are astonishing,” said Hershkovitz. “Two Homo groups coexisted in the Levant for almost 100,000 years, exchanging knowledge and genes.”
For now, how modern humans evolved remains a mystery, and the latest findings point to a very complex picture in the Middle Pleistocene.
More about how we met other human species from PBS Eons:
Featured image: Screenshots via YouTube