Moroccan fossils shake up understanding of human origins

This is us: Earliest fossils of our species found in Morocco

The discovery of the world's oldest human fossils and animal bones from 300,000 years ago not only sheds life on the evolution of mankind - but on the meals they ate.

The discovery of ancient remains of Stone Age humans in Morocco has pushed back the date of the origin of our species by 100,000 years. New fossils from Morocco push the evidence back by about 100,000 years.

The March 2, 2007 photo provided by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology shows excavators working on the remaining deposits the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco where the oldest known fossils of human species have been unearthed, revealing an early evolutionary step toward developing the fully modern human body. These findings suggest a complex evolutionary history probably involving the entire continent, with Homo sapiens by 300,000 years ago dispersed all over Africa.

Previously, the oldest Homo Sapiens fossils were from the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, which dated back 195,000 years.

Pre-eminent Australian bioanthropologist Colin Groves of the Australian National University said the discovery was the strongest evidence yet Homo sapiens were evolving across the African continent at the same time Neanderthals were emerging in Europe.

Modern humans might not be as modern we thought. Scientists believed modern humans evolved suddenly from more primitive human populations in East Africa.

"Homo sapiens, despite being so well known, was a species without a past until now", says María Martínon-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist at University College London, noting the scarcity of fossils linked to human origins in Africa. Stone tools, animal bones and evidence of fire were also found within the same layer at the site. It also follows that in these last couple hundred-thousand-years the Homo sapiens lineage has focused heavily on improving brain shape, and possible brain function.

"Thanks to improvements in dating techniques, particularly in luminescence dating, this layer, from which all the specimens had been excavated, is now revealed to be approximately twice as old as previously thought", Chris Stringer and Julia Galway-Witham of Britain's Natural History Museum, who were not involved in the research, wrote in a commentary.




The fossils were initially dated to about 40,000 ago, and later to about 160,000 years.

Fossils of early members of Homo sapiens found in Morocco (left) display a more elongated skull shape than do modern humans (right).

How do we know how old the fossils are?

Scientists analyzed their findings, based on bones from several prehistoric people as well as stone tools at the Jebel Irhoud archaeological site, in two articles in the journal.

"Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa", said Hublin.

Numerous tools at the site had been subjected to heat, which enabled the team to date the amount of radiation they contained using a technique known as thermoluminescence dating. Around this time, the Sahara was green and filled with lakes and rivers. They were short, had small brains, and could fashion only crude stone tools.

But given their modern-looking face and teeth, Hublin said, these people may have blended in today if they simply wore a hat.

"Our results challenge the preconceived notion of early modern humans in East Africa in many ways regarding the date of emergence of our species, the geographical conditions of this emergence and the conditions of the evolution of the early forms of Homo sapiens", Hublin said.

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