Findings from a cave on Mt. Carmel indicate that modern man exited Africa tens of thousands of years before previously thought and evolved much earlier

Many years ago, a group of brave adventurers came from North Africa to the Middle East. These people were the first of their kind to leave the continent in which the human race has initially evolved, and those who followed them eventually spread throughout the world to form the nations and cultures we know today. But when did this initial departure from Africa take place? A new study, led by Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, from the Tel-Aviv University Medical School, and Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron, from the Archeology Department at the University of Haifa, suggests that the answer is: much earlier than we previously thought.

The most ancient evidence for the presence of our species, Homo sapiens, outside of Africa, was found here in Israel. Until this point, the most ancient findings were discovered in Qafzeh Cave near Nazareth, where skeletons that are about 90 thousand years old were found, as well as in the cave of es-Skhul on Mt. Carmel, which was populated as early as 120 thousand years ago.

Now researchers have revealed that humans of our species lived in the Misliya Cave on Mt. Carmel as early as 177 thousand years ago, at least. According to these findings, Homo sapiens left Africa tens of thousands of years earlier than previously known.

The bone upon which the study is based has already been discovered in 2002. It includes part of the top jaw and cheek bone and still contains all of the teeth on the left side of the mouth, from the incisor in the front, of which only the root remained, to the third molar in the back. Along with the bone, carved stone tools were also found in the same area of the cave.

In order to date the finding, the researchers took a sample from one of the teeth and from the precipitate that accumulated on the teeth, as well as from the chips of flint stones found in the proximity of the bone, and used different dating methods to identify the age of the bone. Their conclusion was that the owner of the bone lived 177-194 thousand years ago. The jaw is thought to belong to a young man or woman. The layer in which the tools were found is presumably even more ancient, dating back 250 thousand years ago.

העצם והשיניים שהתגלו בכרמל שופכים אור חדש על תולדות האדם המודרני |צילום: פרופ' ישראל הרשקוביץ, אוניברסיטת תל אביב
The bone and teeth found on Mt. Carmel shed new light on the history of modern man | Photograph: Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, Tel-Aviv University

Sophisticated Work

During those times, and even earlier, there were people that were found outside of Africa – but they were not Homo sapiens and belonged to more ancient species. Humans that most likely belong to the Homo erectus species built camps in Hula Valley nearly 800 thousand years ago. Neanderthals were present in South Europe about 400 thousand years ago, and remained there up until about 40 thousands years ago.  Neanderthals or their close relatives were also found in Israel. Bones dating 120 thousand years ago were found in the Tabun Cave on Mt. Carmel, as well as signs of fire use, dating back 350 years ago. 

Following the dating process, the next question facing the researchers who found the bone in Misliya Cave was: does it belong to a Neanderthal or to one of our own species? The first would not have been such a dramatic discovery, since it is known that Neanderthals were in this region during that time. However, if the bone does belong to a Homo sapiens, it would be the earliest piece of evidence for our species exiting Africa.

Hershkovitz, Weinstein-Evron and researchers from Europe and the United States utilized novel imaging techniques in order to examine the bone and teeth. Teeth are made from especially durable material, so they often remain intact even after the bones break and crumble, and therefore teeth are very prevalent in the fossil record. For this reason, a large portion of fossil research focuses on small changes that teeth underwent throughout evolution, and we have a good idea of how Neanderthal teeth looked and how they differed from our teeth.

The size of the teeth, their shape and grooves, along with the shape of the skull itself, indicated that the bone came from a Homo sapiens with seemingly modern anatomy. "Every one of these features took us far from Neanderthals, and towards Homo sapiens", said Weinstein-Evron to Davidson Online.

The tools that were found along with the bone also indicate that someone new came into town. The researchers analyzed over 60 thousand flint tools, and many are still standing by for analysis. These tools were carved in quite a sophisticated manner, in a style known as "Levallois technique". "This technique shows that those people planned ahead what they were trying to create from the material", said Weinstein-Evron. "And they also made good use of the materials they had at hand – they made many tools out of the same flint stone". The people of Misliya made long and elegant blades, which were not previously seen in the Middle East. The researchers hypothesize that our species brought this technique with them from Africa.

כל התנועה לאפריקה וממנה עברה דרך ישראל. מערת מילסיה בכרמל | צילום: פרופ' מינה וינשטיין-עברון, אוניברסיטת חיפה
All migration to and from Africa passed through Israel. Misliya Cave on Mt. Carmel | Photograph: Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron, University of Haifa


The new finding changes what we previously knew about the evolution of our species, since it means a group of humans began exiting Africa at a very early stage. Until recently, the common notion was that the Homo sapiens species only appeared about 200 thousand years ago, but this has changed following the discovery of fossils belonging to our species in Morocco that are 300 thousand years old. The anatomy of the jaw found in Misliya is more modern than that of the fossils from Morocco, and it seems like they came from a Homo sapiens population, most likely from East or South Africa, who was very closely related to modern humans.

If these humans reached the Carmel almost 200 thousand years ago, it means they evolved in Africa even before that time. So this new finding, along with the one from Morocco, "pushes back" the first appearance of our species. "We thought we appeared only at the last part of the evolutionary process, when all other groups already disappeared, leaving us as the last men standing", said Herskovitz to Davidson Online. "But now we understand that we evolved in parallel to other human species: Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo erectus etc. We did not evolve solitarily, but with interactions with other groups for a long time".

This is not only true for Africa, but also for Asia and Europe, and especially the Land of Israel. "People exited and entered Africa for over the course of two million years", said Hershkovitz, "And they all passed through Israel, which is a narrow land bridge between the continents".

Similarly, when the humans who resided in Misliya came here, they found a land populated with the people who their remains were found in the Tabun Cave and other locations. The researchers presume that those seemingly modern humans that came from Africa intermixed with the local population in Israel, and the fossils that were found in Qafzeh and es-Skul Caves came from their combined descendants. 

מאפריקה לכרמל. הנתיב המשוער של מסעות האדם שהגיע לישראל כבר לפני כ-180 אלף שנה | איור: מריה גורוחובסקי
From Africa to the Carmel. The purposed migration route of humans who arrived to Israel 180 thousand years ago | Illustration: Maria Gorohovski

The next challenge

The fossil from Misliya represents, to the best of our current knowledge, the first modern human to exit Africa, but certainly not the last. "There were many departures from Africa", said Hershkovitz, "There was a constant flow of populations, from and to Africa. The land of Israel is like a central bus station through which many people pass, going in all directions".

Genetic studies on current-day humans showed that our ancestors left Africa later, about 60-70 thousand years ago. All people living outside of Africa originate from the same population that left the continent at that point in time, but some may have met other populations along the way. The dynasty of the humans of Misliya has most likely disappeared at some point, without leaving its mark on human genetics.   

This does not mean that the humans of Misliya ended their migration in Israel. In recent years, studies have shown that our species reached East Asia as early as 100 thousand years ago, and Hershkovitz thinks they may be the descendants of the humans who lived on Mt. Carmel. "They did not stop here, they continued further", said Hershkovitz. "Humans are always migrating, moving forward, looking for the next challenge".

Watch Tel-Aviv University's video about the study:


Translated by Elee Shimshoni