The jawbone fragment and seven teeth were unearthed in Misliya cave along the western slopes of Mount Carmel, 7.5 miles from the major city of Haifa. On Thursday, researchers announced that they had dated it to be between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago, making it the oldest known Homo sapiens fossil ever to be found outside of Africa.
Other items discovered in the cave include the remains of fires, burned animal bones and stone tools and weapons that were considered sophisticated at the time.
Humans first appeared in Africa, with the oldest fossils of Homo sapiens discovered roughly 300,000 years ago. The oldest fossils to be discovered outside of Africa, however, were dated to be between 90,000 and 120,000 years old.
In other words, the Misliya jawbone proves that humans may have emerged from Africa between 57,000 and 104,000 years before they were believed to.
"This is an exciting discovery that confirms other suggestions of an earlier migration out of Africa," said paleoanthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University in New York, who co-authored the study.
Quam added that genetic evidence had suggested that the migration out of Africa had taken place earlier than what was believed. "Now we finally have fossil evidence of this migration, in addition to inferences drawn from ancient DNA studies and archaeological sites," he told Science, which published the article.
Quam added that the Misliya humans' tribe was likely nomadic, following prey or warm weather, which was what eventually led them out of Africa. "They were capable hunters of large game species including wild cattle, deer and gazelles. They also made extensive use of plant materials, including perhaps for bedding," Quam said.
The discovery also has played into the ongoing debate as to what route early humans used to exit Africa. Some researchers believe that they went along the Bab al-Mandeb strait in what is now southern Saudi Arabia, while others have advocated that they traveled through the Nile valley in Egypt to enter modern day Israel via the Sinai.
This find obviously strengthens the latter theory, according to study lead and Tel Aviv University paleoanthropologist Israel Hershkovitz.
"The moment you say there is modern Homo sapiens in Israel between 170,000 to 200,000 years ago, suddenly all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place," Hershkovitz said.
He went on to say that the sample actually was more human-like than the samples discovered in Africa, which still had some traits of humanity's progenitor species. "You could say that it's not just the oldest Homo sapiens outside of Africa, it's the oldest Homo sapiens there is, period," Hershkovitz adds. "The fossils found in Africa still had many archaic traits, but here we are talking about fully modern people."