Breaking News! 300,000-Year-Old Remains Place Oldest Homo Sapiens in Morocco
A re-evaluation of early human remains and artifacts from Morocco has pushed back the advent of Homo sapiens by 100,000 years. Two new papers suggest the oldest of the fossils comes from 300,000 to 350,000 years ago. This may lead researchers to re-think their general search in the area around the Great Rift Valley of East Africa for the origin of our species.
Phys.Org reports that the skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least five Homo sapiens, along with stone tools and animal bones, have been found at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco since 2004. Before now, the oldest accepted dating for Homo sapiens remains were said to be from the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, dated to 195,000 years ago and Herto, also in Ethiopia, from 160,000 years ago.
Some of the recent discoveries at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco: Left, view showing a partial skull in the center foreground (white arrow) and a femur in the center background (yellow arrow). Right, view of site, but after additional excavation. The partial skull (white arrow) and femur (yellow arrow) are still present, as well as a portion of a right tooth row (red arrow). (Richter, D. et al)
According to archaeologist Daniel Richter, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and his team, the remarkable date comes from thermoluminescence dating of fire-heated flint artifacts unearthed in “new excavations at the Middle Stone Age site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco which are directly associated with newly discovered remains of H. sapiens.”
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The Atlantic has shared some critical opinions on the recent publications, stating that others have already suggested the origin of our species being connected to the Middle Stone Age. However, Shannon McPherron, an expert on stone tools who was also involved in the new study, states that before now “bones and stones were telling different tales.” Although the stones were found all over Africa by 300,000 years ago, human fossils were thought to be no older than 195,000 years old. This would logically lead people to wonder if the stone tools had been made by some hominid other than Homo sapiens. As McPherron said “We had a disjuncture…We had a major transition in behavior but no biological transition to go with it. Jebel Irhoud fills that gap nicely.”
The Jebel Irhoud archaeological site in Morocco. (Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig)
Richter adds “We employed state of the art dating methods and adopted the most conservative approaches to accurately determine the age of Irhoud.”
Apart from the impressive age of the fossils, researchers have also suggested that the features of the early Homo sapiens found at the site are important. They wrote in a paper that the facial, mandibular and dental morphology “aligns the Jebel Irhoud material with early or recent anatomically modern humans.” This is accompanied by “more primitive neurocranial and endocranial morphology.” Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology explained to reporters at a news briefing that this combination of features would have allowed the ancient individuals to “blend in with a modern crowd”, especially if they were wearing hats to cover “their somewhat oddly shaped heads.”
Palaeoanthropologist Philipp Gunz, also of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told Phys.org “The inner shape of the braincase reflects the shape of the brain. Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage.”
Before now, most scientists have focused their search for the origin of our species on the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. However, Jebel Irhoud has also been examined since at least the 1960s and it has already been identified for Middle Stone Age artifacts and human fossils. Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Morocco also brought the location of the site to the forefront, by stating
“North Africa has long been neglected in the debates surrounding the origin of our species. The spectacular discoveries from Jebel Irhoud demonstrate the tight connections of the Maghreb with the rest of the African continent at the time of Homo sapiens' emergence.”
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‘The pan-African dawn of Homo sapiens’ CREDIT: (GRAPHIC) G. Grullón/Science; (DATA) Smithsonian Human Origins Program; (PHOTOS, COUNTERCLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) Ryan Somma/Wikimedia Commons; James Di Loreto & Donald H. Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons; University of the Witwatersrand; Housed in National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Photo Donation: ©2001 David L. Brill, humanoriginsphotos.com
On a related note, this study may also help explain an enigmatic partial cranium (attributed to archaic Homo sapiens, or Homo heidelbergensis, or possibly Homo helmei) from Florisbad, South Africa which has a suggested date of 259,000 years ago.
The Florisbad Skull. (Ryan Somma/CC BY SA 2.0)
Finally, in the journal Nature, the researchers asserted that: “Jebel Irhoud [is] the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the H. sapiens […] Furthermore, it shows that the evolutionary processes behind the emergence of H. sapiens involved the whole African continent.”
As the study of human origins is always being updated, it’s exciting to think where and when the next big discovery will arise.
Top Image: An almost complete adult mandible found at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. New discoveries at the site date the earliest Homo sapiens to 300,000 years ago. Source: Jean-Jacques Hublin/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig