Arik Haglili
Guiding in Israel Since Jurassic Era

Neanderthals and Homo-sapiens in Prehistoric Israel

Credit: hairymuseummatt, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Credit: hairymuseummatt, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With its rich archaeological heritage, the Land of Israel has provided fascinating insights into the possible interactions between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens during prehistoric times. Over thousands of years, these two distinct human species may have possibly coexisted in the region, leaving behind clues about their lifestyles, cultures, and interactions. In this post, we shall journey through time to explore the fascinating relationship between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in the Land of Israel and perhaps break down some paradigms about what you know about human evolution.

According to the Out of Africa theory, Homo sapiens left the African continent for Europe via the land of Israel about approx. 55,000 years ago. However, he did not find the land vacant from humans. Neanderthals, an ancient human species, inhabited the Land of Israel during the Middle Paleolithic period, dating back as far as 250,000 years ago.

Archaeological evidence reveals their presence in various sites, including the Carmel region, the Jordan Valley, and the Galilee. The Neanderthals did not originate in Africa. They came from Europe, and the Land of Israel was the southern boundary of the species. Beyond that, the climate became too hot for the cold-accustomed hominide. So, as a result, the land of Israel is the region where the two species, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, overlapped, living side by side, and coexisted.

One Of The Most Remarkable Discoveries At Skhul Cave Is The Presence Of Both Neanderthal And Homo Sapiens Remains. The Findings Of Homo Sapiens Fossils From The Early Upper Paleolithic Period Indicate These Early Modern Humans Coexisted With Neanderthals, Providing A Rare Glimpse Into Their Interactions. Credit: Shutterstock

The estimate for the arrival of Homo sapiens in the region ranges from 150,000 years ago to 55,000 years ago during the late Middle Paleolithic and early Upper Paleolithic periods. Homo sapiens originated in Africa and gradually migrated to other parts of the world, including the Land of Israel.

As Homo sapiens entered the region, they would have encountered Neanderthals, leading to a period of coexistence and likely interactions between the two human species. While the nature of these interactions remains a subject of scientific debate, evidence suggests that there may have been cultural exchanges and even occasional interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

One Of The Most Notable Finds At Kebara Cave Was The Discovery Of Neanderthal Remains, Including A Nearly Complete Adult Male Skeleton Known As “Kebara 2.” The Well-preserved Bones Have Provided Researchers With A Wealth Of Anatomical And Genetic Data, Contributing Significantly To The Study Of Neanderthal Biology And Evolutionary History. Credit: Nicolas Perrault III, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The arrival of Homo sapiens brought about significant changes in the archaeological record, including the emergence of the Levantine Aurignacian culture. This cultural period is associated with Homo sapiens and is characterized by sophisticated stone tools, personal ornaments, and symbolic expression.

Two significant sites in the Land of Israel, Tabun Cave and Skhul Cave, have provided valuable evidence of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens coexisting. These sites have yielded skeletal remains, tools, and cultural artifacts that shed light on the lifestyles and possible interactions of these ancient human populations.

Five Hand Axes, Found at Tabun Cave. Excavated By The Archaeologist Dorothy Garrod In The 1929-1934 Excavations. On Display At The British Museum. Credit: Fæ, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

While Neanderthals eventually disappeared from the region and were replaced by Homo sapiens, the legacy of their coexistence can be seen in the genetic heritage of modern humans. Studies have revealed that people of non-African descent carry a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA, indicating past interbreeding between the two species.

Among The Most Significant Discoveries At Amud Cave Are The Fossilized Remains Of Neanderthals. The Site Has Yielded Fragments Of Neanderthal Skulls And Teeth, Contributing To Our Understanding Of Neanderthal Biology, Anatomy, And Genetics. Credit: Shutterstock

The Land of Israel serves as a fascinating landscape where the ancient past comes to life, offering glimpses into the coexistence and interactions of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. As Homo sapiens migrated into the region, they encountered Neanderthals, leading to a period of cultural exchange and possibly interbreeding.

A More Recent Hypothesis Suggests That The Skhul/Qafzeh Hominids Might Have Been Part Of The Initial Migration Of Modern Humans Out Of Africa Approximately 125,000 Years Ago, Likely Through The Sinai Peninsula. According To This Hypothesis, The Robust Characteristics Observed In The Skhul/Qafzeh Hominids Are More Likely Associated With Archaic Homo Sapiens Features Rather Than Neanderthal Features. Credit: Wapondaponda, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The fossil evidence and genetic findings show that the origin of modern humanity is in Africa 200,000 to 150,000 years ago. From there, it spread to the Middle East about 120,000 to 55,000 years ago and other continents.

Anatomically modern human fossils were discovered in the Land of Israel in Skhul Cave on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, a short distance of only a few hundred meters from the Tabun Cave, and in Qafzeh Cave on Mount Precipice near Nazareth.

These fossils date from 100,000 to 92,000 years before our time; that is, they are roughly the same time as the Neanderthal from Tabun Cave or slightly later. But they are earlier than the Neanderthals from Amud Cave and Kabara Cave, who lived 62 to 41 thousand years ago.

In other words, Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans could have lived together in the Middle East for several tens of thousands of years. No unequivocal evidence has yet been found that they actually lived side by side at the same time.

An alternative hypothesis is that waves of modern humans from Africa and Neanderthals from Europe and Asia alternated in the Middle East. Such replacement may be the result of the fluctuations in the global climate of the Ice Age, when Neanderthals (more adapted to cold conditions) tended to spread southward during the cold periods, and modern humans managed to spread northward during the temperate lulls.

It is challenging to differentiate between archaeological layers of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans from this period in the Middle East because both apparently used the same stone tool culture – the Mousterian culture.

However, it is possible that an advantage of modern humans over the Neanderthals in the field of ritual and art began to emerge in this early period. The Skhul Cave and the Qafzeh Cave fossils show more distinct signs of ritual burial than the Neanderthal fossils, and in the Skhul Cave, beads made of perforated shells were found dating to more than 100,000 years before our time.

A dispute between researchers has existed for many years on whether Neanderthals and modern humans interbred with each other and whether the “hybrids” were fertile. Researchers who classified Neanderthals and modern humans into separate taxonomic species believed that they were too different for sexual attraction to arise between them and that, in rare cases of mating, the offspring tended to be infertile, similar to mules and other hybrids between different biological species. Other researchers believed that such hybrids existed.

Today, scientific research continues to illuminate the complex relationship between these two distinct human species, enriching our understanding of the shared human heritage that spans millennia. As we look back on this remarkable period of prehistoric history, we are reminded of human evolution’s intricate and interconnected nature. This legacy has shaped the course of humanity and continues to resonate within us today.

About the Author
Hi! I’m Arik, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to sharing my passion for the Holy Land with those that are interested to know more about this fascinating piece of land. I launched my career working as a guide at the ‘International School for the Studying of the Holocaust.’ There, I sharpened my skills to become a top-notch guide! And after taking thousands of visitors for over five years as a local guide in different museums, I decided to go professional and professionalize in the field by becoming a licensed tour guide by the Ministry of Tourism. At the same time, I also completed my master’s in ‘Land of Israel Studies’ granted to me by the University of Haifa.
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