An ancient skull found in a cave in Israel is the first solid evidence that our species migrated out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world around 60,000 years ago, researchers say. The 55,000-year-old skull "is the missing connection between African and European populations," the lead researcher tells the New York Times, explaining that the shape of the skull found in the Manot cave establishes its owner as a fully modern human, and it has features seen in both older African populations and those of the earliest Europeans, including hints of Neanderthal ancestry. All non-Africans have a small amount of Neanderthal ancestry, the BBC notes, and the Manot skull is believed to date from the time when the first human-Neanderthal interbreeding happened.
"This is the first evidence that shows indeed there was a large wave of migrants out of East Africa, crossing the Sahara and the Nubian desert and inhabiting the eastern Mediterranean region 55,000 years ago," the lead researcher tells Nature. "So it is really a key skull in understanding modern human evolution." A paleoanthropologist not involved with the study tells the Times that while the fossil fits previous predictions—"a rarity in our field"—it is hard to draw conclusions from a single skull and it will take DNA tests to determine whether it is from an early human-Neanderthal hybrid. The researchers plan to keep excavating the Manot cave system until at least 2020 to search for more remains of the migrating people. (Read more Neanderthals stories.)