At first glance, to the untrained eye, this find from a cave outside of Haifa looks a little suspect. Is it trash? A rind of an ancient fruit? But once you see that those are teeth, it becomes clear. Israeli archaeologists found the remains of a nearly 200,000-year-old human jawbone in a cave on Mount Carmel, a discovery they predict will change what we know about the evolution and spread of our species.
It’s been a commonly held belief that homo sapiens first appeared some 200,000 years ago in East Africa. These ancestral humans emerged from Africa around 70,000 to 60,000 years ago, occasionally interbreeding with Neanderthals and other hominids as they dispersed throughout the world.
The origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (AMHS) and the fate of the Neandertals have been fundamental questions in human evolutionary studies for over a century. A major obstacle to the resolution of these questions has been the lack of substantial and accurately dated hominid fossils from between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago.
Only now it seems that we have to completely revise our timeline. Physical anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, the lucky man whose dig made the discovery, says the find suggests our ancestors arose far earlier than thought. “[If] our species was in Israel 200,000 years ago, it suggests our species is very old—not just 300,000 years old, but older.”
I am fascinated by paleoanthropology, the field of study that seeks to trace the origins of humanity. They look at bone fragments, textiles, fossils, tools, burned out, ancient campfires, whatever they can find, to figure out how we got here. It is a science that just keeps morphing as new finds continue to turn up.
I used to think that humanity arose along a very linear plane: from the ocean to the shore, from the shore to the jungle, from the jungle to Newton Center. However, the latest science indicates that there were all kinds of hominids walking around Africa before homo sapiens made the eventual migration northward and into the rest of the world.
The important point is that, as the timeline keeps changing, we do too. In other words, 300,000 years ago our ancestors were emerging into the world. They are ALL of our ancestors. All those hominids who look like apes, the Neanderthals with large middle part of the face; the Australopithecus who climbed in the trees; or the Sahelanthropus with the sloping face, very prominent brow ridges, and elongated skull.
We have the choice to keep evolving and thus make the world livable for the next generation. I assume most of us who are homo sapiens have a similar impulse to protect our young, to see to it that they will be safe and happy. So why is it that we seem to fail so miserably? Why do nations commit atrocities against their people? Why do people of one race think that they are somehow better when it is clear that we are all descended from the same hominids? I mean, I hate to let the alt-right know this, but 300, 000 years ago, there were no white people…
And here I am, once again at a theme close to my heart. We are charged with building bridges, not walls. We are challenged to be inclusive, to see the other as a relative, not an alien.
That jawbone discovery is a celebration of the complexity and mystery of human existence. We’ve come a long way to finally get here. It would be nice if we could work harder to keep the world in one piece rather than break it into a million pieces of lost potential.