Archaeologists have known for some time about the slightly uncomfortable reality that humans and Neanderthals once bred with each other. It was just a presumed fact of evolutionary history.
But a newly discovered 55,000-year-old skull found in northern Israel may mark the place where Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens first had sex. Here it is, in all its glory:
The science: The Guardian reports that a team of Tel Aviv University paleontologists led by Israel Hershkovitz discovered the skull fragment in western Galilee. The entrance to a cave there had collapsed approximately 30,000 years ago, preserving the cavern's contents, including the skull. Dubbed the Manot Cave, the location was discovered by accident when a bulldozer dislodged part of its roof. The team dated the find using minerals left on the skull's surface deposited through thousands of years of damp conditions.
Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers argue the skull fills an important gap in human history. Homo sapiens first left Africa somewhere between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, but this find is the first definitive evidence that humans lived in the Levantine corridor around 55,000 years ago.
Most importantly, our ancient ancestors appear to have shared the area with Neanderthals who lived in other caves roughly 30 miles east and south. Since genetic sequencing has revealed Neanderthal genes, which comprise about 2% of non-African humans' DNA, were probably introduced around the same time in history, Hershkovitz believes the location is the most likely candidate for the two species' first amorous encounters.
The Manot skull does indeed have some physical characteristics that seem similar to Neanderthal remains, but without additional DNA evidence, the researchers cannot tell for certain. At the very least, it's evidence that humans might have been having those awkward first hookups much earlier than previously thought.
Why this is important: "At about 55,000 years old, this is the first modern human from western Asia which is well dated to the estimated timeframe of interbreeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals," said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. "Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesised out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia, and also into Europe. Its discovery raises hopes of more complete specimens from this critical region and time period."
The skull fits the time and place where humans might have first interbred with Neanderthals so well that it may challenge the popular belief that a man-Neanderthal link was first forged in Europe 10,000 years later. It also adds to the nuances of the human-Neanderthal relationship, which increasingly looks more complicated than the mass genocide some anthropologists believe humans committed against other hominids as they migrated out of Africa.
With many chambers left to explore, Manot may yet hold answers to these and other questions about the dawn of our species.