The origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (AMHS) and the fate of the Neandertals have been fundamental questions in human evolutionary studies for over a century. A major obstacle to the resolution of these questions has been the lack of substantial and accurately dated hominid fossils from between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago.
With the newly discovered remains of anatomically modern Homo sapiens, in the Middle Awash, Ethiopia (White et al., 2003), dated to 160,000-154,000 years, the interest of the anthropological world shifted once again to one of the fundamental issues in human paleontology: Where and when did modern humans first appear and what were their routes of dispersal? The hominid crania from Herto, Ethiopia, provided for the first time evidence on the location, timing and contextual circumstances of the emergence of Homo sapiens. These hominids, predating classic Neandertals exhibit none of their derived features. They manifest an intermediate morphology between archaic African fossils (e.g., Bodo, Kabwe) and later AMHS (Klasies, Qafzeh). White and colleagues (2003) described them as being “on the verge of anatomical modernity but not yet fully modern.” (p.745). These Ethiopian hominids lack any derived affinity with modern African crania or with any other modern group. They are likewise distinct from Pleistocene representatives of AMHS. This is why White et al. (2003) recognized the Herto crania as Homo sapiens idaltu, a new palaeosubspecies of Homo sapiens.
Why excavating at Misliya?
If the Ethiopian fossils at 160,000 are morphologically beyond the range of variation seen in AMHS, while Qafzeh and Skhul, at 100,000-115,000 years are already fully modern, the ultimate question is: What did the ultimate ancestor to Skhul and Qafzeh hominids look like? In other words, are we going to find an Israeli "idaltu" at Misliya Cave? Although there are other African early H. sapiens fossils dating from about 260,000 to 130,000 years ago (e.g., Florishbad, Ngaloba, Guomde, Omo Kibish, Singa), their dating is questionable. In fact, as Stringer (2003) stated: “… the most securely dated and complete early fossils that unequivocally share an anatomical pattern with today's H. sapiens are actually from Israel, rather than Africa” (p. 692). The presence of H. sapiens in Skhul and Qafzeh at ca. 100,000 years ago is usually explained by a range expansion from ancestral African populations, such as those from Omo Kibish or Jebel Irhoud. Yet, there is no evidence to confirm this hypothesis. Therefore, if the well-dated cave of Misliya will yield fossil hominids, they will add significantly to our understanding of early H. sapiens' evolution, migration and expansion. One should bear in mind that human populations between 160,000 and 100,000 show great anatomical variation (sometimes even between hominids of the same site and period). How this morphological variability coalesced, in a relatively short period of time, into modern morphology is not known. Only new fossils from Misliya cave, predating Skhul and Qafzeh hominids, will yield answers.
In spite of the great importance of Kebara Cave and the Wadi el-Mughara site (Tabun and Skhul caves) and the ongoing research, they are probably rather over-exploited. Significantly, none of these caves seem to be able to provide, in the near future, significant new evidence regarding the origins of Homo sapiens and its early evolution. The only way to solve the puzzle of modern human origins is to look for human remains in layers 150,000 to 250,000 years old, largely coeval with layer D at Tabun. Since sites of this time span are rare in the Levant and layer D at Tabun itself is practically void of bones, it has been obvious for some time now, that highlighting this period requires the exploration of new sites, preferably within the promising area of Mount Carmel. Misliya Cave, that contains rich Lower/Middle Paleolithic faunal and lithic assemblages, spanning the appropriate time span, is thus a most suitable candidate for the search of the earliest AMHS in the Levant.
- Stringer, C. 2003. Human Evolution: Out of Ethiopia. Nature, 423, 692-695.
- White, T. D., Asfaw, B. DeGusta, D., Gilbert, H., Richards, G. D., Suwa, G. and Howell, F. C. (2003). Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia. Nature 423: 742-7.