Israel’s Qesem Cave is in the news again, offering further tantalizing hints — hints is the very most you could honestly call them — about the origins of modern humans.
Last year a report in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology about several teeth found in the cave near Tel Aviv excited speculation that they belonged to 400,000-year old specimens of Homo sapiens. If true — if, if, if — that might have suggested a very different story than is usually told about where the first members of our species arose: in the Levant rather than Africa, where the earliest humans, according to conventional interpretations, arose only 200,000 year ago.
We’ve emphasized here again and again the creativity, not in the best sense of the word, that goes into attempted reconstructions of long ago deceased human-like creatures from their pathetically minimal remains. Still there was a certain intrigue in the idea of seeing a very old religious tradition, likewise tracing human origins to Israel, confirmed in an anthropology journal however speculatively and hypothetically. The Midrash and other Jewish sources place the location from which God drew the dust to form Adam and Eve at the site of today’s Temple Mount in Jerusalem while locating their burial cave in Hebron. (The location of the Garden of Eden, where they were taken and quickly expelled, is a different matter.) What this would mean in ordinary historical terms, I don’t know.
Anyway, now a configuration of the same research team, from Tel Aviv University, returns with additional data and interpretation. Writing in PLos ONE, they want to show that the Qesem Cave site provides evidence of the downfall of Homo erectus, having hunted out his local supply of elephants, and replacement by “a new hominin lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (ca. 400 kyr) Levant,” a more nimble and intelligent species better able to seek out fatty nourishment from other sources. So goes the theory, it was the crisis in making a living that drove the evolutionary transition some 400,000 years ago.
Recognizing that identifying anyone or anything by their dentition is tricky to say the least, the team declines to name the Israeli successor to Homo erectus as Homo sapiens but the possibility is clearly what gives the report its special interest.