Jan 25, 2018

Human fossils found in Israel are oldest to date

The upper left jaw of an ancient, human fossil found in Israel. Photo: Israel Hershkovitz / Tel Aviv University

A ridge of teeth discovered in a cave in Israel are between 177,000-194,000 years old, according to a paper published today in Science. The teeth appear to be human, and if they are, would be the oldest anatomically modern human fossil found outside of Africa and the oldest fossil with modern human traits found to date.

What it means: Fossils like these, and new gene sequencing tools, are starting to answer questions about when modern humans left Africa, and when, exactly, they became human. The find in Israel suggests modern humans may have left Africa earlier than previously thought. And, they didn’t just find a jaw — they unearthed sophisticated stone tools, too.

The mystery: Recent genetic studies have suggested modern humans came out of Africa roughly 220,000 years ago, but the oldest bones found to date were the 120,000 year old Skuhl and Qafzeh specimens found in Israel. These specimens are hominins, or apes from after the human-chimpanzee split (like Lucy).

Because these hominins had a mixture of modern human and archaic traits, there was debate about whether this meant ancient humans looked strange or if these skulls were the result of more modern-looking humans interbreeding with local populations of Neanderthals or similar hominins.

What they found: “Their analysis shows that morphometrically, the teeth and maxilla align most strongly with Homo sapiens and appear not to show features that are uniquely found in Neanderthals,” Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg, a paleoanthropologist at Ohio State University who was not in the study, tells Axios. This find helps reconcile the later fossil finds with the genetic date.

Additionally, study author Israel Hershkovitz, a paleoanthropologist at Tel Aviv University, tells Axios, “It suggests that Skhul and Qafzeh hominins are not the earliest modern humans to leave Africa (as most people thought), but rather a development of local population through the interaction between modern humans (coming out of Africa) and the local populations of the region.”

Side note: Tools were found in the same cave as the skulls. Critically, some of the tools are even older. Because the old tools were created with a similar technique to the new ones, “it seems like a reasonable assumption to argue that the whole suite of assemblies had been formed by the same humans that arrived in the region some 250,000 ago,” study author Mina Weinstein-Evron of the University of Haifa said in an email.

Go deeper

Federal court temporarily halts "Remain in Mexico" program

Migrant wearing a cap with U.S. flagin front of the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Photo: Jair Cabrera Torres/picture alliance via Getty Image

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's earlier injunction on Friday, temporarily stopping the Trump administration from enforcing the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy.

Why it matters: Tens of thousands of migrants seeking asylum have been forced to wait out their U.S. immigration court cases across the border in Mexico under the policy. The Trump administration has long credited this program for the decline in border crossings following record highs last summer.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus updates: WHO raises global threat level to "very high"

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The World Health Organization raised its global risk assessment for the novel coronavirus to "very high" Friday, its highest risk level as countries struggle to contain it. Meanwhile, National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow this morning tried to reassure the markets, which continued to correct amid growing fears of a U.S. recession.

The big picture: COVID-19 has killed more than 2,860 people and infected about 83,800 others in almost 60 countries and territories outside the epicenter in mainland China. The number of new cases reported outside China now exceed those inside the country.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 2 hours ago - Health

Bernie's plan to hike taxes on some startup employees

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced legislation that would tax nonqualified stock options at vesting, rather than at exercise, for employees making at least $130,000 per year.

The big picture: Select employees at private companies would be taxed on monies that they hadn't yet banked.