Ancient Teeth in Israel May Point to Oldest Ancestors

The discovery of eight ancient teeth in a cave east of Tel-Aviv that was used thousands of years ago may point to the oldest human ancestors, a study found.

The teeth are older than most of the hominin specimens previously found in southwest Asia, according to researchers from Tel Aviv University who used advanced imaging technology, comparative analysis and an examination of the earth and debris around the fossils to date them to 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.

While the features aren’t a direct match to Neanderthals or early modern humans, they have a “stronger affinity” to Homo sapiens, the investigators said in a report in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. One possibility is the teeth belong to an ancient, direct ancestor of early humans that developed independently of others in Africa and Europe, said Rolf M. Quam, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

“This region of the world has been a crossroads for human population movements for a very long period of time and is situated just outside of Africa and just outside of Europe,” Quam, one of the study’s researchers, said in an e-mail.

Alternately, the finding may reflect a local evolution of Neanderthals in southwest Asia, showing they were there earlier than previously believed, or that more than one species -- one earlier in time, and one later -- occupied that area, Quam said.

Many Theories

“There are a lot of possibilities,” Avi Gopher, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University who co-directed the excavations where the teeth were discovered, said today in a telephone interview. While one alternative would be to modify the theory that Homo sapiens developed first in Africa and then migrated throughout the world, Gopher said, “We must be cautious; you don’t throw out a paradigm just because of a few teeth.”

The study was funded by the government of Spain, the American Museum of Natural History, the Israel Science Foundation and philanthropic groups including the Irene Levi Sala CARE Archaeological Foundation and the Leakey Foundation.

An international team of scientists carried out the research, led by Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University. The study was based on excavations of the site under the direction of Gopher and Ran Barkai, also of Tel Aviv University.

“It is possible the older teeth represent one species and the younger teeth represent a different species, since we know that different human species were occupying Africa and Europe at this time,” Quam said. “With such fragmentary evidence as eight isolated teeth, it is difficult to offer a clear answer.”

----With assistance from Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem. Editors: Reg Gale, Andrew Pollack

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