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.

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