World’s oldest Homo sapiens fossils found in Morocco


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For decades, researchers seeking the origin of our species have scoured the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Now, their quest has taken an unexpected detour west to Morocco: Researchers have redated a long-overlooked skull from a cave called Jebel Irhoud to a startling 300,000 years ago, and unearthed new fossils and stone tools. The result is the oldest well-dated evidence of Homo sapiens, pushing back the appearance of our kind by 100,000 years

 

“This stuff is a time and a half older than anything else put forward as H. sapiens,” says paleoanthropologist John Fleagle of the State University of New York in Stony Brook. 

 

The discoveries, reported in Nature, suggest that our species came into the world face-first, evolving modern facial traits while the back of the skull remained elongated like those of archaic humans. The findings also suggest that the earliest chapters of our species’s story may have played out across the African continent. “These hominins are on the fringes of the world at that time,” says archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

 

Back in 1961, miners searching for the mineral barite stumbled on a stunningly complete fossil skull at Jebel Irhoud, 75 kilometers from Morocco’s west coast. With its big brain but primitive skull shape, the skull was initially assumed to be an African Neandertal. In 2007, researchers published a date of 160,000 years based on radiometric dating of a human tooth. That suggested that the fossil represented a lingering remnant of an archaic species, perhaps H. heidelbergensis, which may be the ancestor of both Neandertals and H. sapiens. In any case, the skull still appeared to be younger than the oldest accepted H. sapiens fossils. 

 

Those fossils were found in East Africa, long the presumed cradle of human evolution. At Herto, in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, researchers dated H. sapiens skulls to about 160,000 years ago; farther south at Omo Kibish, two skullcaps are dated to about 195,000 years ago, making them the oldest widely accepted members of our species, until now. “The mantra has been that the speciation of H. sapiens was somewhere around 200,000 years ago,” Petraglia says.

 

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(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; SHOP; SHOP; University of the Witwatersrand; SHOP; Housed in National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Photo Donation: ©2001 David L. Brill, humanoriginsphotos.com; SHOP

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Full article at Science Magazine

 

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