Eight small teeth found in an Israeli cave raise the possibility that modern humans originated in Israel and not Africa, suggests a paper recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

(Image: Rolf Quam)

The teeth date to the Middle Pleistocene and are similar in size and shape to teeth attributed to hominids from other sites in Israel, such as Skhul and Qafzeh. Researchers excavated these latest remains from Qesem Cave in central Israel.

"The Qesem teeth come from a time period between 200,000 to 400,000 years ago when human remains from the Middle East are very scarce," co-author Rolf Quam said in a Binghamton University press release.

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Quam, an anthropologist at the university, added, "We have numerous remains of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens from more recent times, that is around 60,00 to 150,000 years ago, but fossils from earlier time periods are rare. So these teeth are providing us with some new information about who the earlier occupants of this region were as well as their potential evolutionary relationships with the later fossils from this same region."

If the teeth can be linked directly to modern humans, the researchers say this means either one of two things: our species originated in what is now Israel, or Homo sapiens migrated from Africa far earlier than is presently accepted.

The prevailing theory now is that modern humans and Neanderthals shared a common ancestor who lived in Africa over 700,000 years ago. Some of these descendants migrated to Europe and evolved into Neanderthals. Others stayed in Africa and evolved into Homo sapiens.

What happened to the Neanderthals? Since modern humans likely mated with them, I believe Neanderthals were absorbed into our gene pool.

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The next question is, if Homo sapiens did indeed originate in Africa, when did our species leave that continent? New evidence suggests modern humans were already settled in Arabia 125,000 years ago, but that's still a drop in the time bucket compared to the 200,000 to 400,000-year-old Israeli cave teeth, which have researchers puzzled.

"While a few of the teeth come from the same individual, most of them are isolated specimens," Quam said. "We know for sure that we're dealing with six individuals of differing ages. Two of the teeth are actually deciduous or 'milk' teeth, which means that these individuals were young children. But the problem is that all the teeth are separate so it’s been really hard to determine which species we're dealing with."

He concluded, "This is a very exciting time for archeological discovery. Our hope is that the continuing excavation at the site will result in the discovery of more complex remains which would help us pinpoint exactly which species we are dealing with."