Scientists said on Wednesday (January 28) the upper part of the skull, the domed portion without the face or jaws, was unearthed in Manot Cave in Israel's Western Galilee. Scientific dating techniques determined the skull was about 55,000 years old.

The researchers said characteristics of the skull suggest the individual was closely related to the first Homo sapiens population that later colonized Europe.

Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, who led the study published in the journal Nature, called the skull an important piece of the puzzle of the story of human evolution.

"Basically what we found here, at Manot cave, is a skull, part of a skull, not a complete skull, part of a skull that was dated to 55,000 years (ago). Now this is one of the most dramatic time in human evolution because at that time, period, modern human populations started to evolve," Hershkovitz said.

Hershkovitz said the skull is the missing link connecting the African population with the early Upper Paleolithic European population.

"What we have found is actually the what you call the missing connection.. the piece of the puzzle that we needed.. to put those two stories together and actually to connect Africa and Europe phylogenetically," he added.

Researchers also said the skull provides the first evidence that Homo sapiens inhabited that region at the same time as Neanderthals, our closest extinct human relative.

Hershkovitz said the findings indicate that interbreeding may have occurred in the Levant region.

Previous genetic evidence suggests our species and Neanderthals interbred during roughly the time period represented by the skull, with all people of Eurasian ancestry still retaining a small amount of Neanderthal DNA as a result.

The robust, large-browed Neanderthals prospered across Europe and Asia from about 350,000 to 40,000 years ago, going extinct sometime after Homo sapiens arrived.

Scientists say our species first appeared about 200,000 years ago in Africa and later migrated elsewhere. The cave is located along the sole land route for ancient humans to take from Africa into the Middle East, Asia and Europe.