Hershkovitz said it took a long time to determine that the bones they found indeed belonged to a hitherto unknown species.
“There was no ‘eureka’ moment,” he noted.
But the findings may radically change what researchers have so far believed about how ancient populations evolved and interacted, including how sapiens and Neanderthal, other ancient human types, related to each other.
“We have shown that contrary to what was previously believed, the Neanderthals are not a European story, but very much a story of the Levant,” he said.
Researchers believe the Nesher Ramla was an ancestor of the Neanderthals and other archaic Asian populations.
“Previously, it was thought that Neanderthals arrived in [what is now] Israel around 70,000 to 50,000 years ago from Europe,” Hershkovitz remarked. “However, now we are talking about a population living here some 130,000 years ago.”
Some features of the remains, like the teeth and the jaws, were more similar to Neanderthal species, while the skulls resembled the Homo type. But something did not make sense.
When the researchers understood that the bones they had retrieved did not belong to either a Neanderthal or a Homo sapiens, they started to examine the possibility that they belonged to the last survivors of a more archaic population that they thought had become extinct hundreds of thousands of years earlier.
“We started to look for other members of this population, and we discovered that some fossils previously unearthed at other prehistoric sites in Israel, including the Qesem cave, belonged to the same group,” Hershkovitz said.
“We therefore realized that we were dealing with a huge population that lived in the region, and probably also migrated in different directions, including in Asia and in Europe and later became the humans we know as Neanderthal.”
According to Hershkovitz, Nesher Ramla Homo and Homo sapiens not only
coexisted peacefully and exchanged technology, but also produced offspring.
“They engaged culturally and biologically,” he said. “In Europe, the story was very different because when modern humans arrived there around 45,000 years ago, they completely eliminated the local Neanderthals. This did not happen here.”