Published: Thu, June 08, 2017
World News | By Cecilia Wilkerson

This is Us: Earliest Fossils of Our Species Found in Morocco

This is Us: Earliest Fossils of Our Species Found in Morocco

At an archaeological site near the Atlantic coast, finds of skull, face and jaw bones identified as being from early members of our species have been dated to about 315,000 years ago.

Bones unearthed in a Moroccan cave have pushed back our species' origin by about 100,000 years, scientists say, and offer some fascinating insight into human evolution.

Two teams of researchers reported on skull and bone fragments from five ancient humans, along with the stone tools they used to hunt and butcher animals, from a prehistoric encampment at Jebel Irhoud, not far from modern-day Marrakesh.

But the more dramatic discovery is where they were found. Hublin referred to the discovery expanding what we think of as the human race's "Garden of Eden" where we evolved into the species of today, from a location in sub-Saharan East Africa to a wider region: "I would say the Garden of Eden in Africa is probably Africa - and it's a big, big garden".

"It's a face you could cross in the street today", Jean-Jacques Hublin, a study author from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said in the Nature article. "In short, the the story of our evolution over the past 300,000 years is mostly the evolution of our brains". "The oldest Homo sapiens ever found in Africa". The next-oldest fossils of Homo sapiens, the scientific name for humans, are about 200,000 years old.

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Professor Rainer Grün, director of the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, said: "If we look at the history of human evolution until the mid-80s it was thought model humans evolved in Africa and shortly after migrated to Europe at around 40,000 years".

Steele, part of an worldwide research team that started excavating the Morrocan site in 2004, studies how food and environmental change influenced human evolution and migration. The new discovery reveals people from an early stage of our species' evolution, with a mix of modern and more primitive traits.

Hublin first became familiar with Jebel Irhoud in the early 1980s, when he was shown a puzzling specimen of a lower jawbone of a child from the site; later excavations found a braincase, as well as sophisticated stone tools and other signs of human presence. But based on the brain case they discovered, these Homo sapiens did have a larger cerebellum than Neanderthals.

It is believed that our lineage diverged from Neanderthals and Denisovans more than half-a-million years ago, but evidence for what happened since is hard to come by. "We realized this site was much older than anyone could imagine".

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

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Dating was done by thermoluminescence, a pinpoint-accurate technology which measures the accumulated exposure of stone minerals to radiation generated by heat from the Sun, a volcano, or a human cooking fire.

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

"It means they were no slouches intellectually", Professor Groves said. Hublin's team returned to the site in 2004 hoping to clarify that date - and instead stumbled upon more fossils.

Excavations at the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco. The new date for the fossils suggests some elements of Homo sapiens anatomy developed a more modern appearance much earlier than thought, says Adam Van Arsdale of Wellesley College, who was not involved with the study.

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