Researchers at Tel Aviv University say modern humans appeared in Israel 400,000 years ago — 200,000 years earlier than previously thought – as a result of the disappearance of elephant meat.

In their paper, Man the Fat Hunter – the demise of the Homo erectus and the emergence of a new hominin lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (ca. 400 kyr) Middle East, in the scientific journal, PLoS One, the TAU researchers say a crucial step in the biological and cultural evolution of humans took place as a result of adaptation to a different diet.

The research was based on findings at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv.

This is the second time, Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archeology, are making headlines with findings at Qesem Cave. Last year the team discovered ancient teeth dating back 400,000 years at the site. 

Now, Barkai and Gopher, together with Miki Ben Dor and Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, say they have solved the riddle of the appearance of modern humans in Israel.

The scientists noted that the association of elephants with H. erectus is well documented.

Having confirmed the importance of elephants to Homo erectus’ nutrition in the Middle East, they turned to look at the circumstances surrounding the evolution of modern humans in Africa. They found that in Africa elephants have disappeared from archeological sites together with the Acheulian culture and also in Africa the disappearance of elephants from post-Acheulian sites preceded the appearance of Modern humans.

The researchers concluded that there was a connection between the disappearance of elephants and the appearance of modern humans – something that has not been suggested previously.

In an attempt to fully comprehend the effect that the disappearance of elephants might have had on the Homo erectus in terms of caloric consumption, the researchers constructed a bio-energetic model of hominids’ nutrition. They said their model showed that the Homo erectus was dependent on a significant amount of animal fat for his survival. When the elephants died out, a new hominin evolved and replaced it.

In addition to being the first attempt at explaining the reasons for the evolution of the Modern humans, this study also challenges the “Out of Africa” paradigm dominating research on the evolution of Homo sapiens during the last decades. In recent years, this paradigm has been challenged by new discoveries from Europe, China and other localities. These are now setting the stage for a new understanding of the human story in general and the emergence of Modern humans in particular.