We’ve known for some time that our distant ancestors were more than familiar with other archaic hominins, especially Neanderthals. However, in 2021, researchers discovered what they believe is a previously unknown population of ancient hominins that exhibit a unique combination of Neanderthal and archaic human traits. The discovery suggests that this other population had a long and dynamic history of interaction with Wise man.
The new fossils give pause for thought
In 2021, at an archaeological site called Nesher Ramla, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel, an international team of researchers made an intriguing discovery: the site itself was once a sinkhole used as a shelter by ancient people in an otherwise exposed landscape.
Over time, they noticed evidence of their existence, such as stone tools, bones from their hunts, and remains from their fires. But then two fragments of a strange skull came into the mix and things got really interesting – and perhaps controversial.
According to the researchers who first described the fragments, they could belong to a previously unknown and late survivor Homo a population that lived in the region between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago.
Researchers Israel Hershkovitz, Yossi Zeidner and colleagues describe their findings in two companion studies that suggest that this new hominid population, known as Nesher Ramla Homoexchanged their genes and culture with nearby populations of Wise man for thousands of years.
The fossils consist of a right parietal bone from the back/side of the skull (and some fragments of the left parietal bone) and a virtually complete lower jaw (jaw bone). After analysis, the team realized that the fragments belonged to someone they thought was not quite Wise manbut neither were Neanderthals, the only other hominin species known to have lived in the region.
This is because the parietal bone has “archaic” features that are completely different from the early and recent Wise man, and that they are too thick for those found in Neanderthals. In addition, the jawbone had archaic features, but also some that appear in Neanderthals.
Whatever they encountered, the team reasoned, was a new population Homo which falls somewhere between the two and may represent one of the last surviving common ancestors between Neanderthals and humans.
“The interpretation of the Nesher Ramla fossils and stone tools will meet with mixed reactions among paleoanthropologists,” Dr. Martha Lahr, paleoanthropologist and director of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement at the time.
“However, the age of the material from Nesher Ramla, the discrepant morphological and archaeological affinities, and the site’s location at the crossroads of Africa and Eurasia make this a major discovery.”
Peculiarities in fossils
If Hershkowitz and team are correct, then this could explain some features of other fossils recovered from this area, ones that were previously designated as either Neanderthal or H. wise.
For example, the famous Lady of Tabun (known as Tabun C1 to archaeologists and her friends). This specimen was discovered in 1932 by Yusra, a pioneer in archaeology, and her field director, Dorothy Garrod.
If Tabun C1 and other fossils are indeed members of this potentially new hominid population, then it would have a huge impact on our understanding of human evolution.
However, some are skeptical. In a blog post, John Hawkes, a paleoanthropologist, suggests that there may be other explanations than the existence of a new, previously unknown population of H. wise.
“This is a provocative suggestion that a long-lasting distinct population once existed in southwest Asia,” Hawkes wrote in 2022. “The idea brings together at least three fossil samples from the region that otherwise do not fit either Neanderthals or modern fossils samples in Africa.
For Hawkes, an alternative explanation may involve Denisovans, another archaic hominid population known to have intimate relationships with Neanderthals and early humans. However, he adds that this is just one suggestion.
“[I]makes me think that the fossil record just isn’t good enough to rule out such a scenario. We know more about Neanderthals than about any other population from this time period, and it’s still not enough to fully characterize Neanderthal variation,” Hawkes continued. “Over 400,000 years of evolution, not every member of the “Neanderthal” population would have traits that anthropologists first recognized and defined in fossils from the past 120,000 years.
At the time of writing, it is still unclear whether Nesher Ramla Homo is indeed a new human population, but future work may shed more light on this mystery.