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A 3D scan of a 22,000-year-old skull fragment from a modern human found in Kenya.

Unusual 20,000-year-old human skull shows diversity of prehistoric humanity


A unique Stone Age skull found in Kenya is reshaping what scientists know about the diversity of early humanity.

The 20,000-year-old partial skull was found at Lukenya Hill in the 1970s and stored in the collections of the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. Christian Tryon, archaeologist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum and colleagues revisited the ancient skull and took detailed measurements.

According to LiveScience, the findings surprised researchers. The skull is anatomically a modern human, but has features very different from skulls found in Europe and Africa from the same time period. Tryon tells LiveScience, “It looks like nothing else, and so it shows that original diversity that we've since lost. It's probably an extinct lineage.”

Compared against Neanderthal skulls, modern-day skulls, and other ancient fossilized human remains, the Kenyan partial-skull dimensions were noticeably different. The partial Lukenya Hill skull belonged to a Homo sapien who was anatomically modern, and lived during the last ice age. However it was “different from those of both the European skull and the African skulls from the same time. In addition, the skull was thickened, either from damage, nutritional stress or a highly active childhood. (There is not enough evidence to say the fossil represents a subspecies of Homo sapien, Tryon said),” reports the science news website.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal meets a very modern human at the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal meets a very modern human at the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany.

The partial skull find suggests that great human diversity was supported in prehistoric Africa, resulting in branching lineages that no longer exist in modern times.

Recent examinations of fossilized human teeth and a prehistoric jawbone have been raising questions about the established theories on the history of modern humans, suggesting there may be many species yet uncategorized.

The findings of Tryon and colleagues have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Also found at the Lukenya Hill site were ostrich eggshells used to make beads, and stone blades, distinctively fashioned in a method named Levallois technology. The artifacts were between 22,000 and 46,000 years old, a period of rapid human advancement, during which people were manufacturing trade goods and increasingly using trading routes. Some of the items found were created using methods that haven’t changed much over tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists point out that similarly crafted beads and lightweight points can be found in Egyptian tombs from 4,000 years ago, reports LiveScience.

Levallois point blademaking technique. Representational image. From Beuzeville, France.

Levallois point blademaking technique. Representational image. From Beuzeville, France. Wikimedia Commons

Ancient specimens from the Stone Age like the partial skull are important as they shed light on early human culture and give us a better understanding of the genetic diversity and wonderful variety found within humanity. 

Featured Image: A 3D scan of a 22,000-year-old skull fragment from a modern human found in Kenya.
Credit: copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College

By Liz Leafloor 



Tsurugi's picture

Well said!

It also shouldn't be a surprise that humans used to come in many more varieties than exist today, because the last global climate cataclysm, which marked the end of the most recent ice age, also coincided with the extinctions of over half the large mammal species living at that time. Humans qualify as large mammals, no doubt a lot of us were wiped out as well.

Roberto Peron's picture

Probably an extinct lineage?  No, I’d say most likely it is an assimilated lineage that still can be found in modern Africans.  Why would it be exactly the same as a Neanderthal Skull or skulls found in other regions like Europe or Asia?  I postulate that environment plays a much stronger role in development, behavior, culture, and evolution than we ever suspected!  Of course there would be regional differences.  Additionally, there were several species of proto-humans coexisting and we know that and we also know they were interbreeding so why such a surprise to find this skull?  It should be no surprise at all.  And as for yet unknown human species?  Hey we’re still looking for the mystery parent of the Denisovans who mated with Neanderthals.  To think we have all of our fishes together is laughable.  We don’t!  Basically what we have here is yet ANOTHER skull that doesn’t fit into our scheme of things.  Another “mystery.”

Frankly, if I had to say what this skull was my first impression would be that it is the result of mating between a Homo sapien parent and a H. heidelbergensis parent as it has features of both and both species lived in Africa.  


Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

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