Moroccan fossils shake up understanding of human origins

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

Until now, most researchers believed our species - Homo sapiens - descended from ancient pre-humans that lived in East Africa around 200 thousand 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.

"The site itself is in a hill and at the time of occupation would have been a cave, would have provided shelter and we found animal bones and stone tools which they would have used to process and consume those animals".

"The message we would like to convey is that our species is much older than we thought and that it did not emerge in an Adamic way in a small "Garden of Eden" somewhere in East Africa".

"They are not just like us", said Jean-Jacques Hublin, one of the scientists reporting the find, according to The Associated Press.

The new excavation project, which began in 2004, resulted in the discovery of new Homo sapiens fossils in situ, increasing their number from six to 22.

Previously, the earliest modern human fossils found in Ethiopia were dated to be around 195,000 years old.

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"This evidence makes Jebel Irhoud the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the Homo sapiens clade", they wrote.

There has been increasing evidence that the modern human lineage diverged from Neanderthals and Denisovans 500,000 years ago, making us close relatives rather than direct descendants. But the new fossils are from Morocco in far northern Africa, supporting the theory that the evolution of modern humans was a piecemeal affair that played out across the continent. The scientists also found fairly sophisticated stone tools and charcoal, indicating the use of fire by this group. Initial research revealed the artifacts to be 40,000 years old, although that didn't align with the features of the bones. "We realized this site was much older than anyone could imagine".

A facial reconstruction of fragments of an early Homo sapiens skull found at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco.

Hublin first visited Jebel Irhoud in the 1990s, only to find the site buried.

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.

This is a common argument in anthropology - where does a newly discovered fossil, especially one with a mix of ancient and more modern features, fit in the bushy family tree of human ancestry?

"The Sahara was green and filled with lakes and rivers", Nature said.

"What distinguished the Middle Stone Age is a shift from large, heavy-duty stone tools to an emphasis on producing stone flakes that were smaller and lighter", said Shannon McPherron, archaeologist at Max Planck and one of the study authors.

Excavations at the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco.

"It really seemed like people were fond of hunting", she said. 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. But this discovery widens the "cradle of life" from East Africa to the whole continent, Hublin said, and suggests that these evolutionary changes were happening across the continent at the same time.


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