Ten years after its discovery in the sediments of land used for the extension of a cement factory in Nesher Ramla, Israel, a fragmentary fossil is making headlines. Science, Friday June 25. The American scientific journal qualifies it as “Archaic survivor” and announces the description of a “Pre-Neanderthal of the genus Homo ». Its discoverers indeed see in him one of the ultimate representatives of a population which would have been at the origin of the Neanderthals of Europe.
Israel Hershkovitz and Hila May (Tel Aviv University), who led the work published in Science, expect their interpretation of the place of this newcomer in the human family to be debated: “European scientists might find it hard to accept that the source of the Neanderthals is here. They have a long, intimate history with Neanderthals ”, estimates the first. “It’s always difficult to change the paradigm. We are laying the foundation stone for this new story ”, adds the second. “We just hope they won’t be too angry”, they proclaim in chorus.
What could be annoying about these fragments of skull and lower jaw adorned with a few teeth? Not the fossils themselves, found not in a cave, like the majority of those discovered to date in Israel, but in an open-air site where the fruit of the hunt – ungulates, in particular – was chopped up thanks to to stone tools present in large numbers. “It was a butcher’s shop in a savannah landscape”, résume Israel Hershkovitz.
The dating is also not in dispute. It was obtained by multiple and complementary measurements, which give a range around 125,000 years. No, what will be debated is the interpretation of these bones from their morphology, also predicts Marta Mirazon Lahr (University of Cambridge) in a commentary published in Science, where the researcher greets a “Major discovery”.
“Unique combination of primitive characteristics”
Let us recall the context. What is today Israel has always been a corridor and a crossroads for animal and human populations, especially during the first outings of Africa by representatives of the genre. Homo, and those more recent of our species, homo sapiens. The one that occurred around 60,000 years ago ultimately led to it conquering the entire planet. Before this successful excursion, settlements ofhomo sapiens in the region had already taken place: the oldest found in Israel, in the cave of Misliya, dates back 180,000 years.
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