Beads from the site of Ksar Akil (Lebanon) found closely associated with the skeleton of an early modern human girl dating to between 39-41 thousand years ago.
The traditional view is that the first humans with anatomy like ours evolved in Africa, then from about 50,000 years ago started to spread into the Near East before continuing into Asia and Europe.
But the new study suggests they may have settled the Near East a lot later than previously thought, and that therefore the region may not be the single vital crossroads through which early humans passed on their way to colonising the whole Eurasian landmass. If so, the story of our spread out of Africa may need to be rewritten. Instead of colonising the Levant then moving into Europe, our distant ancestors may have first settled in the central Asian steppes before turning west again.
‘Since the 1930s, many prehistorians have believed the Levant was a major strategic point for people moving from Africa into the Middle East and Europe,’ says Dr Katerina Douka of the University of Oxford, who led the research. ‘It sounds a straightforward and obvious idea, but these early humans didn’t necessarily follow the maps of today.’
She adds that the region has received comparatively little attention from archaeologists, so theories tend to rest on a very small base of evidence – the Near East is the least-dated area of the Palaeolithic world. On top of this, the region’s hot dry conditions make scientific archaeology difficult – for example, the climate tends to destroy the collagen on which radiocarbon dating of bones depends.
One of the most important sites in the region is Ksar Akil in modern-day Lebanon. Here, several fragments of ancient humans have been found over the years, crucially including a small part of a fossilised human known as Ethelruda, and another buried individual, whom archaeologists call Egbert.
These have generally been seen as supporting the broader narrative of humans moving through the Near East into Asia and Europe. But until now, researchers hadn’t used radiocarbon dating to check how long ago these people lived. The authors of a new study, published in PLoS ONE, set out to remedy that. Via Carbon dates cast doubt on Near East’s role in human migration.