Discovery of 300,000-year-old remains rewrites story of human evolution

Skull found at Jebel Irhoud (Ryan Somma)Skull found at Jebel Irhoud (Ryan Somma)Fossil bones discovered in an old mine in Morocco, northwestern Africa, have challenged the idea that Homo sapiens—modern humans—first evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago. Jean-Jacques Hublin and the team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig were stunned when a tooth and stone tools found with the bones they had unearthed were dated to about 300,000 years old. This makes the remains the oldest known specimens of Homo sapiens. The discovery indicates that modern humans were already present—and probably all over Africa—100,000 years earlier than scientists previously thought.

Site in Ethiopia where human fossils foundSite in Ethiopia where human fossils found
Until now, the earliest fossils of our kind were from Ethiopia in East Africa and were dated to be approximately 195,000 years old. The Moroccan discovery suggests that, rather than modern humans emerging in a single ”cradle of humanity”, East Africa, around 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was already present across the length of Africa at least 100,000 years earlier, and slowly evolved in different parts of the continent. 

Hublin points at human skull (MPI-EVA)Hublin points at human skull (MPI-EVA)Fossil bones were found at the site in Morocco, called Jebel Irhoud, in the 1960s, but they were dated to about 40,000 years old, and were considered to be from Neanderthals, close cousins of Homo sapiens. In recent excavations at the site, Hublin and others found more remains, including pieces of a skull, a jawbone, teeth and limb bones belonging to three adults, a juvenile and a child about seven and a half years old. Alongside the bones, the scientists found sharpened flint tools, gazelle bones and lumps of charcoal, possibly left over from fires.

Jawbone from Jebel Irhoud (MPI-EVA)Jawbone from Jebel Irhoud (MPI-EVA)The scientists compared the newly discovered fossil bones with those of modern humans, Neanderthals and more ancient humans, some 1.8 million years old. They found that the shape of the face matched quite closely that of modern humans. The brow ridge is more pronounced, the lower jaw larger, and the brain cavity smaller and more elongated, but otherwise, apart from being stockier, the Jebel Irhoud humans would have looked similar to people alive today. 

Levallois technique (J. M. Benito Álvarez)Levallois technique (J. M. Benito Álvarez)Stone tools from Jebel Irhoud (MPI-EVA)Stone tools from Jebel Irhoud (MPI-EVA)The tools at Jebel Irhoud were made using a method archaeologists call the Levallois technique, a clever way of shaping, or “knapping”, stone tools. Pieces are flaked off around the edge of a flint, creating a domed shape on the top that looks like tortoise's shell. When the flint is struck, a thin flake, with all its edges already sharpened, falls off it: this flake can then be used as a scraper, knife or spearpoint. 

The discovery proves that this technique was in use much earlier than archaeologists thought. It also hints that the development of sophisticated toolmaking might be linked to the emergence of that particular group of humans who became our ancestors.

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