It's widely acknowledged that modern Europeans mated with Neanderthals at some point in the past. We're just not entirely sure when or where. The recent discovery of an ancient skull in Israel may represent the critical missing link anthropologists have been looking for.

The 55,000-year-old partial skull was discovered in Northern Israel's Mano Cave in 2008 and has been under analysis ever since. It's providing fresh insights into the migration patterns of modern humans as they left Africa, while showing when they may have co-habited and bred with Neanderthals.

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According to an analysis conducted by Case Western Reserve University's Bruce Latimer, in conjunction with Tel Aviv University's Israel Hershkovitz, early humans could have met and interbred in the Levant region 55,000 years ago. That's about 10,000 years earlier than previous estimates. But what makes Latimer's claim particularly compelling is that he has actual, tangible physical evidence in the form of this remarkable skull fragment.

Image: Hershkovitz et al./Nature.

The discovery suggests that the Manot people are the predecessors of the early Paleolithic populations of Europe, and that modern humans co-existed with Neanderthals in the Near East for potentially thousands of years.

The New York Times reports:

They said this was "the first fossil evidence from the critical period when genetic and archaeological models predict that African modern humans successfully migrated out of Africa and colonized Eurasia."

The researchers further concluded that the Manot specimen "provides important clues about the morphology of modern humans in close chronological proximity to a probable interbreeding event with Neanderthals." They also noted that the shape of the cranium established this as a fully modern human at a time when warmer and wetter conditions were favorable for human migration out of Africa.

In other words, Dr. Hershkovitz said in an interview, the Manot cranium "is the missing connection between African and European populations."

Excitingly, the partial skull contains "hybrid" features consistent with early human/Neanderthal interbreeding. The skull, dubbed Manot 1, belonged to a fairly small adult individual of unknown sex.

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"Here we actually hold a skull of a human being that was living next to the Neanderthals," noted Hershkovitz in a Nature News article. "Potentially [it] is the one that could interbreed with the Neanderthals."

The researchers caution, however, that we cannot definitely conclude that the specimen was the product of interbreeding. More samples, including DNA evidence, are needed to prove that the traits aren't some sort of genetic anomaly. The researchers are hopeful that they'll discover other remains in various caves located in the area in Galilee, which were occupied for long times by Neanderthals between 65,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Read more at the New York Times and Nature News. Check out the scientific study here.

Top photo: Amos Frumkin/Hebrew University Cave Research Center.