About 100,000 years ago, tall, long-limbed humans lived in the caves of Qafzeh, east of Nazareth, and Skhul, on Israel’s Mount Carmel. Their remains suggest a surprisingly sophisticated people defying the conventional timeline of Homo sapiens’ migration out of Africa. But ultimately, the Skhul and Qafzeh residents did not survive.
The Skhul-Qafzeh people gathered shells from a shoreline more than 20 miles away, decorated them and strung them as jewelry. They buried their dead, most likely with grave goods, and cared for their living: A child born with hydrocephalus, sometimes called water on the brain, lived with profound disability until the age of 3 or so, a feat only possible with patient, loving care.
So advanced were their artifacts that, for years after their discovery in the late 1920s, most archaeologists believed the people had evolved from the Neanderthals whose remains were found in neighboring caves. For decades, researchers theorized that the Skhul-Qafzeh populations represented a “missing link” between Neanderthals and us.
Beginning in the late 1980s, however, more precise dating techniques upended that notion. The Qafzeh humans were around 92,000 years old, and the Skhul people were even older, averaging about 115,000 years. The age of the Skhul-Qafzeh people challenged the widely held idea that Homo sapiens had not left Africa until about 60,000 years ago. Even more startling: Almost all the Neanderthal remains were significantly younger. The Skhul-Qafzeh people were not an elusive missing link between Neanderthals and humans. They were humans, and Neanderthals had replaced them.