Public Release: 

Skull discovery potentially housed brain like ours

Simon Fraser University

An SFU archaeologist and graduate student have helped an Israeli-led scientific team discover our direct ancestors likely came from Africa or the Middle East and not Europe.

Francesco Berna, a Simon Fraser University assistant professor of archaeology, is part of an Israeli-led team of scientists that has unearthed major clues about the first modern humans in northern Israel.

A paper just published in Nature and co-authored by Berna documents the discovery of a 55,000-year-old, partial human skull with a distinctive modern human, bun-shaped "occipital" region, at Manot Cave in Western Galilee, Israel.

Berna and his colleagues believe this skull's date of origin and where it was found supports other evidence that our species actually evolved in Africa or in the Middle East. This new evidence contrasts with the hypothesis that the human species first evolved in Europe.

Berna helped the scientific team understand how ancient humans used Manot Cave at the time of this skull's origin and how the cave, its archaeological remains and the skull got to their present state.

Megan Thibodeau, one of Berna's graduate students, explored the use of fire in this cave. Their work is helping scientists confirm whether this skull is from the most recent evolution of anatomically modern humans, which showed up in Europe first, and eventually the rest of the world.

"The skull found at Manot is absolutely comparable to ours and different from other skulls of early modern humans previously found in Israel and dated to 100 thousand years ago," explains Berna. "This earlier group of humans had some slight anatomical differences from us.

"But, most importantly, they didn't produce stone tools, mobile sculptures, and cave paintings such as the one that our direct ancestor produced in Europe and the Middle East, starting at around 40,000 years ago. Earlier modern humans apparently hadn't yet developed our brain."


The late D. David, founder of the 'Dan David Prize', and his son A. David supported and initiated the excavation at Manot Cave. The ongoing research is financially supported by the Dan David Foundation, the Israel Antiquities Authority, Case Western Reserve University, the Leakey Foundation, the Irene Levi Sala CARE Archaeological Foundation, the Keren Kayemet L'Israel and the Israel Science Foundation.

Radiocarbon dating research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Exilarch's Foundation and the Max Planck Society-Weizman Institute Joint Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology.

Geological research was supported by The Bertha and Louis Weinstein Research Fund.

As Canada's engaged university, SFU is defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research and far-reaching community engagement. SFU was founded almost 50 years ago with a mission to be a different kind of university--to bring an interdisciplinary approach to learning, embrace bold initiatives, and engage with communities near and far. Today, SFU is a leader amongst Canada's comprehensive research universities and is ranked one of the top universities in the world under 50 years of age. With campuses in British Columbia's three largest cities--Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby--SFU has eight faculties, delivers almost 150 programs to over 30,000 students, and boasts more than 130,000 alumni in 130 countries around the world.


Francesco Berna (UniverCity resident), 778.558.1624 (cell), 778.782.9674,

Meg Thibodeau, 778.984.9549,

Carol Thorbes, University Communications, 778.782.3035,


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