BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

A new fossil discovery in Morocco will rewrite the history of human evolution

Homo sapiens were hanging around and hunting gazelle in North Africa 100,000 years earlier than was previously believed—a new discovery that will dramatically change the story of the origin of the human species.

Until now, scientists believed that the first Homo sapiens—the scientific name for the species from which humans descend—came from Ethiopia about 200,000 years ago. But fossils at Jebel Irhoud, a site in Morocco, show paleoanthropologists were mistaken about the date, location, and dispersal of our ancestors. In two studies published in the journal Nature today, researchers show that Homo sapiens are much older than was known and that their evolution was more complex and widespread than thought.

Facial reconstruction of Jebel Irhoud fossils.
Possible facial structure of early Homo sapiens based on superimposed fossils from two individuals (distinguished by color). (Max Planck Institute)

“We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200, 000 years ago in east Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago,” palaeoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology said in a statement.

“Until now, the common wisdom was that our species emerged probably rather quickly somewhere in a ‘Garden of Eden’ that was located most likely in sub-Saharan Africa,” he explains. Now, he believes “the Garden of Eden in Africa is probably Africa—and it’s a big, big garden.”

In other words, “Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa,” says Hublin.

Hublin worked with Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco, and an international team of researchers to date teeth, long bones, skulls, and tools of at least five individuals found at Jebel Irhoud. Using new thermoluminescent dating technology on flints found surrounding the fossils, they were able to place Homo sapiens in north Africa and determine what our ancestors ate.

The Jebel Irhoud fossils were surrounded by gazelle bones, among other animal remains, and the scientists believe that these Homo sapiens hunted the animals for meat. Their tools were made of flint, which were consistent with other Middle Stone Age implements previously found at other sites in Africa.

Flints from Jebel Irhoud.
Flints used by Homo sapiens found in layer 7 of the sediment at Jebel Irhoud. (Max Planck Institute)

The site at Jebel Irhoud isn’t new—it was discovered in the 1960s—but this latest excavation began in 2004. New dating techniques allowed scientists to establish a consistent chronology for recently discovered fossils as well as to to re-date prior findings. The team examined a skull originally dated as 165,000 years old, and placed it further back in time by using new techniques that measured the radioactivity of the sediment in Jebel Irhoud. The fossil’s age, based on the latest dating methods, is consistent with the finding that Homo sapiens were in North Africa about 300,000 years ago.

Those early folks aren’t quite like humans of today, but the remains tell the tale of our evolution. They show that the Homo sapiens at Jebel Irhoud were close relatives.

Humans are characterized by their relatively slender faces and a globular brain case or skull, and the fossils mostly share these characteristics. In fact, the skulls of the remains are barely distinguishable from today’s humans but for their archaic brain case—it’s more elongated than ours, less globular. “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,” says paleoanthropologist Philipp Gunz of the Max Planck Institute, who worked on this research.

In light of these findings, scientists have to rethink the story of human evolution, including where and how it happened, as it seems the tale told until now has been incomplete. “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 [region] with the rest of the African continent at the time of Homo sapiens’ emergence,” says Ben-Ncer.

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