By JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH
Eight human teeth dating back as far as 400,000 years ago and found at the prehistoric Qesem Cave near Rosh Ha’ayin – discovered recently by Tel Aviv University researchers – are “the world’s earliest evidence” of modern man (Homo sapiens).
Until now, remains of humans from only 200,000 years ago have been found in Africa, and the accepted approach has been that modern man originated on that continent.
Long before the land was called Israel and the residents Jews, Homo sapiens lived here twice as long ago as was previously believed, the researchers wrote in the latest (December) edition of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
The cave was uncovered in 2000 by Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of TAU’s Institute of Archeology. Later, Prof. Israel Hershkowitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine and an international team of scientists performed a morphological analysis on the teeth found in the cave.
The examination included CT scans and X-rays indicating the size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man. The teeth found in the cave are also very similar to evidence of modern man dated to around 100,000 years ago that had previously been discovered in the Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel and the Qafzeh Cave in the Lower Galilee near Nazareth.
The Qesem Cave is dated between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, and archeologists working there believe that the findings indicate significant changes in the behavior of ancient man. This period of time was crucial in the history of mankind from cultural and biological perspectives, and the fact that teeth of modern man were discovered indicates that these changes are apparently related to evolutionary changes taking place at that time, they maintained.
Gopher and Barkai noted that the findings that characterize the culture of those who dwelled in the Qesem Cave – the systematic production of flint blades, the habitual use of fire, evidence of hunting, cutting and sharing of animal meat, mining raw materials to produce flint tools from subsurface sources and much more – reinforce the hypothesis that this was, in fact, innovative and pioneering behavior that corresponds with the appearance of modern man.
The specimens, date back to the Middle Pleistocene era, include permanent and deciduous teeth. They were thus placed chronologically earlier than the bulk of fossil hominin specimens previously known from southwest Asia. Although none of the Qesem teeth resemble those of pre-Homo sapiens Neanderthals, a few traits may suggest some affinities with members of the Neanderthal evolutionary lineage, but the balance of the evidence suggests a closer similarity with the Skhul-Qafzeh dental material, said Gopher and Barkai.
According to the researchers, the discoveries made in the Qesem Cave may change the perception that has been widely accepted to date in which modern man originated on the continent of Africa. In recent years, archeological evidence and human skeletons have been discovered in Spain and China that are liable to undermine this perception, but the findings now uncovered at Qesem are significant and invaluable, and their early age is undoubtedly an extraordinary archeological discovery, said Gopher and Barkai.
As excavations at the cave continue, the researchers hope to uncover additional discoveries that will enable them to confirm the findings published up to now and to enhance their understanding of the evolution of mankind and especially the appearance of modern man.