According to a study published Wednesday in Nature, the first interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals may have taken place in what is now Israel. Scientists report the discovery of a 55,000-year-old modern human skull in a cave in western Galilee. Named "Manot," the skull represents the first human remains pinpointed to that time and location -- when Neanderthals are known to have been present.
"Manot clearly shows that Neanderthals and modern humans lived side by side in Israel for a long period of time," co-author Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University told Discovery News.
And this new find supports previous research, Michael Balter writes for Science magazine:
The find supports a raft of recent genetic studies. A 2010 analysis, for example, found that up to 2% of the genomes of today's Europeans and Asians consist of Neandertal DNA, a clear sign of at least limited interbreeding in the past. Two years later, scientists compared ancient DNA extracted from Neandertal fossils to that of contemporary modern human populations around the world, concluding that this interbreeding took place in the Middle East, most likely between 47,000 and 65,000 years ago. And last year, a 45,000-year-old modern human found in Siberia, the oldest modern to have its genome sequenced, was revealed to have harbored a little more than 2% Neandertal DNA, allowing researchers to refine the interbreeding event to roughly 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.
The researchers think that Manot (who they think might be female, though it's hard to tell with the brow ridge missing) may have been part of the wave of humans who moved on from Africa to colonize Europe and Asia. It's possible that she was actually part of an initial wave that failed, with others arriving later and thriving. But only DNA analysis can confirm this, and it's possible that the heat of the middle eastern climate has wrecked the DNA in the skull.
If the researchers can successfully analyze Manot's DNA, they could also determine whether she was actually a hybrid -- the result of some of the first interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals -- or just lived in close proximity to these extinct relatives of ours.