TU paleoanthropologist uncovers ancient humans in Israel -

TU paleoanthropologist uncovers ancient humans in Israel

A prehistoric human-child vertebra discovered in the Jordan Valley tells the story of long-ago migrations from Africa. Approximately 1.5 million years old, the vertebra is the earliest evidence of an ancient human discovered in Israel.

four people standing outdoors
Left to right: Omri Barzilai, Izzy Marimski (who discovered the site in 1959), Miriam Belmaker and Alon Barash

A new study, led by researchers from Bar-Ilan University, The University of Tulsa, Ono Academic College and the Israel Antiquities Authority, presents a 1.5 million-year-old human vertebra discovered in Israel’s Jordan Valley. According to the research published Wednesday, Feb. 2, in the journal Scientific Reports, ancient human migration from Africa to Eurasia was not a one-time event but occurred in waves. The first wave reached the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus approximately 1.8 million years ago. The second is documented in ‘Ubeidiya, in the Jordan Valley south of the Sea of Galilee, about 1.5 million years ago.

The research was led by Alon Barash of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University, Chapman Associate Professor of Anthropology Miriam Belmaker of The University of Tulsa, Professor Ella Been of Ono Academic College and Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities AuthorityRecently, excavations in ‘Ubeidiya were resumed by Belmaker and Barzilai under a grant that Belmaker received in 2019 from the National Science Foundation. Belmaker’s research program involves scientists from around the world trying to uncover the secrets of the sediments. The grant has provided financial support for two TU undergraduate and two TU graduate students, as well as funded the first excavation at the site in over 20 years with Barzilai.

The prehistoric site of ‘Ubeidiya is significant for archaeological and evolutionary studies because it is one of the few places that contain preserved remnants of the early human exodus from Africa. The site is the second oldest archaeological site outside Africa and was excavated by several expeditions between 1960 and 1999. The finds from the site include a rich and rare collection of extinct animal bones and stone artifacts. Fossil species include sabertoothed tiger, mammoths and a giant buffalo, alongside animals not found today in Israel, such as baboons, warthogs, hippopotamuses, giraffes and jaguars. Stone and flint items made and used by ancient humans show resemblance to those discovered at sites in East Africa.

aerial view of brown and green landscapeThe new project led by Belmaker uses new absolute dating methods to refine the site’s dating and to study the paleoecology and paleoclimate of the region. While looking at the fossils from the site, now housed at the Hebrew University’s National Natural History Collections, Belmaker, a paleoanthropologist from TU’s Department of Anthropology, encountered a human vertebra. “This did not look like anything I had seen before,” she said. “It looked human, but I was not sure.” Initially unearthed in 1966, the bone was studied by Barash and Professor Been. They identified it as a human lumbar vertebra, the earliest fossil evidence of ancient human remains discovered in Israel, approximately 1.5 million years old.

According to fossil evidence and DNA research, human evolution began in Africa about 6 million years ago. Approximately 2 million years ago, ancient humans — nearly, but not yet in modern form — began to migrate from Africa and spread throughout Eurasia, a process known as the “Out of Africa.” ‘Ubeidiya, located in the Jordan Valley near Kibbutz Beit Zera, is one of the places where there is archaeological evidence for this dispersal.

There is an ongoing debate in the literature about whether the migration was a one-time event or occurred in several waves, explained Barash. The new find from ‘Ubeidiya sheds light on this question. “Due to the difference in size and shape of the vertebra from ‘Ubeidiya and those found at Dmanisi, we now have unambiguous evidence of the presence of two distinct dispersal waves,” he said.

“This vertebra holds secrets about the biology of the ‘Ubeidiya inhabitants,” commented Belmaker. “The person was maybe six years old, but even as a child this individual was very large – in fact, much larger than modern children of the same estimated age.”

four brown stone tools with a red and white measuring device in the middle“The stone and flint artifacts from ‘Ubeidiya, hand axes made from Basalt, chopping tools and flakes made from flint, are associated with the Early Acheulean culture. Previously, it was accepted that the stone tools from ‘Ubeidiya and Dmanisi were associated with different cultures – Early Acheulean in ‘Ubeidiya and Oldowan in Dmanisi. After this new study, we conclude that different human species produced the two industries,” said Barzilai.

According to Belmaker, “one of the main questions regarding the human dispersal from Africa were the ecological conditions that may have facilitated the dispersal. Previous theories debated whether early humans preferred an African savanna or new, more humid woodland habitat. Our new finding of different human species in Dmanisi and ‘Ubeidiya is consistent with our finding that climates also differed between the two sites. ‘Ubeidiya is more humid and compatible with a Mediterranean climate, while Dmanisi is drier with savannah habitat. This study showing two species, each producing a different stone tool culture, is supported by the fact that each population preferred a different environment.”

Been added, “the analysis we conducted shows that the vertebra from ‘Ubeidiya belonged to a young individual 6-12 years old, who was tall for his age. Had this child reached adulthood, he would have reached a height of over 180 cm. This ancient human is similar in size to other large hominins found in East Africa and is different from the short-statured hominins that lived in Georgia.”

“It seems, then, that in the period known as the Early Pleistocene, we can identify at least two species of early humans outside of Africa. Each wave of migration was that of different kind of humans –– in appearance and form; technique and tradition of manufacturing stone tools; and ecological niche in which they lived,” concluded Barash.

For Belmaker, researching human evolution is “extremely exciting.” Because excavations at ‘Ubeidiya concluded in 1999, some people thought there was nothing more to discover. “But you never quite know what you’re going to find,” she noted. “My research and that of my colleagues has shown that there are secrets to be found not only in new excavations that ‘break ground’ but also in old collections and museum drawers.”

As a paleoanthropologist, Belmaker relies on collaboration with natural scientists in fields such as anatomy, geology and biology. “I am proud that TU has allowed me to reach beyond the silos of my discipline and to create meaningful collaborations across our colleges.”

In summer 2022, Belmaker intends to return to Israel to examine more of these artifacts. Her main goal is to understand the environment more fully: “We know that ‘Ubeidiya is a lakeshore, but we are not sure of the climate. Was it like today – hot and dry? Or was it more humid? What was the rain pattern? What does this information say about humans’ ability to live in such an area and how did our ancestors cope with challenging climates? With climate change being such an urgent problem today, peering into the past allows us to learn from our ancestors and derive conclusions that are science-based and that help us cope with our current issues.” She is planning to take graduate and undergraduate students with her.

Immersion in the deep past of humanity’s story is just one of the many fascinating explorations the study of anthropology at TU makes possible. Learn more today!