In 2010, a group of archaeologists went on a desperate mission. They had to prevent large quantities of animal bones and stone tools made tens of thousands of years ago from ending up in the kilns of Israel’s largest cement factory. Some of the remains recovered during that rescue campaign today provide a finding that can change the evolutionary history of the human race and also that of our species: the Nesher Ramla quarry, in central Israel, could be the cradle of Neanderthals, a human species thought to be genuinely European and with whom we Sapiens had sex and children tens of thousands of years ago.
In the deepest levels of the excavation, several fragments of the cranial vault and a nearly complete lower jaw were recovered from an adult whose sex is unknown. The detailed analysis of the morphology of these fossils reveals that it belonged to a hitherto unknown human group that has been baptized as “Homo de Nesher Ramla”. The name refers to the Homo group, which includes modern humans, homo sapiens, and their closest relatives, Neanderthals, among others.
Nesher Ramla’s Homo lived about 130,000 years ago. Its remains show a mixture of primitive features, especially in the skull and jaw, and other highly evolved ones in the teeth that bring it closer to the later Neanderthals that inhabited Europe. These features resemble those of Quesem’s teeth, which date back nearly 400,000 years, and the skulls of Zuttiyeh and Tabun, between 150,000 and 250,000 years old. Those responsible for the work believe that all these remains found in Israel belonged to this new human group of pre-Neanderthals. Nesher Ramla’s Homo would be one of the last survivors of this group, who lived in the Middle East for more than 300,000 years, a period 60 times longer than the entire history since the invention of writing, about 5,000 years ago.
“This is what we call a eureka fossil,” explains María Martinón-Torres, director of the National Center for Research on Human Evolution and co-author of the study, published in Science. The Greek word refers to a sudden discovery that changes history. “This finding shows us that the origin of Neanderthals is not in Europe, but in the Middle East. This was the mother population that later generated daughter populations both in Europe, with the classical Neanderthals, and in Asia, with the Denisovans ”, Martinón-Torres explains.
The finding has important implications for understanding the origins of our species. What today is Israel and was once the bridgehead between Africa and Eurasia begins to look like a huge cake whose different layers bear witness to an almost constant alternation between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In 2018, the team of the paleoanthropologist Israel Hershkovitz found in this same area the remains of a 180,000-year-old sapiens that may be the oldest known. 100,000-year-old sapiens have been found at the Skhul and Qafzeh sites. And in 2015, Hershkovitz’s team published a study showing that around 55,000 years ago there were groups of Neanderthals and sapiens living within 25 miles of each other and that perhaps some of the skulls generally attributed to sapiens are actually hybrid children between this species and Neanderthals.
“This fossil tells us a completely different story of human evolution in this period,” explains Hershkovitz, lead author of the new study. European Neanderthals would actually be the descendants of migrants who left the Middle East in different waves and thus strengthened the weakened and reduced populations of Europe and Asia ”, he highlights.
Genetic analysis of fossils has shown that when Sapiens and Neanderthals met, they regularly had sex and children. The main crossing between the two happened about 70,000 years ago. As a result, all current humans outside of Africa carry a few drops of Neanderthal DNA. This implies that our ancestors accepted into their womb hybrid children without problem. But Neanderthal fossils show that there were also older crosses. The classic Neanderthals have, for example, a male Y chromosome that is sapiens and their mitochondrial genome is also sapiens, the part of DNA that is passed from mother to child. In these first crosses it is probable that it was the Neanderthals who assumed the hybrid babies in their tribes. Until now it was unknown where and when these encounters had taken place.
“Surely the crosses happened here,” explains paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga, co-author of the study. “This is a land of connection. This supports that geography is the mother of history ”, adds the expert, who nevertheless disassociates himself from the theory of his colleagues. It seems to him too “complicated” that this is the cradle of all Neanderthals. He prefers to see it as a point of interaction between different populations of humans.
The Israeli site speaks not only of gene exchange through sex, but also of culture and technology. In January, the discovery in Nesher Ramla of a drawing with six linear strokes made by a hominid on a wild bull bone. According to Yossi Zaidner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is proof that the hominids who lived here about 130,000 years ago had “complex thinking and were capable of creating symbols.”
Zaidner signs today a second study on Science analyzing stone tools found next to human bones. They are very sophisticated. This type of technology, known as Levallois, had only been attributed to much later sapiens and Neanderthals. “Nobody could make this type of tips and knives if someone does not explain how to do it, either by word or by manufacturing them in front of you,” explains Zaidner. “The existence of these very advanced tools shows us that Nesher Ramla’s Homo had a very advanced cognitive capacity. It also implies that there had to be an exchange of knowledge between them and the sapiens; probably sitting in the heat of a bonfire ”, he highlights.
Today the Nesher Ramla field has been razed by excavators that exploit limestone to make cement. The emergency excavation ended in 2011. There are still “tens of thousands” of animal bones pending analysis. It is possible, Zaidner adventure, that among all of them there is one that is human and that is yet to be discovered.
“It is a very correct and well-worked study,” says Antonio Rosas, a CSIC paleoanthropologist who is an expert on Neanderthals. For Rosas, the most plausible interpretation of the work is not that the Middle East was the origin of Neanderthals, but rather that this work reveals a new population of this species that shows that its geographic range not only included Europe and Asia. “It’s as if they suddenly let a new country participate in Eurovision,” he says.