World’s Oldest Homo sapiens Fossils Discovered

hominin skull

These images show two views of a composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils discovered in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. (Photo credit: Philipp Gunz/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

It’s time to rewrite the textbooks. Until now, the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils, found in Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, dated to 195,000 years ago. The new fossils, discovered in Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, date to approximately 300,000 years ago. This means the new findings predate the previous oldest-known fossils by over 100,000 years.

The fossils and other items, including stone tools and animal bones, were discovered by an international team of scientists led by Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco.

Prior to now, anthropologists thought that all modern humans descended from a population of Homo sapiens that lived in East Africa 200,000 years ago. This new discovery turns that long-held thought on its head.

“We used to think that there was a cradle of humankind 200,000 years ago in east Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago,” Jean-Jacques Hublin said in a press release about the discovery. “Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa.”

The archaeology site in Jebel Irhoud is considered to be the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site. The site where the fossils were found has been under excavation since 2004. Among their discoveries included skulls, teeth, and long bones from at least five different individuals.

To date the fossil remains, the scientists used a thermoluminescence technique on heated flints (stone tools) also found at the same site. The tools yielded an age of 300,000 years old. The scientists used this same technique to age a fossil mandible found at the same site in the 1960s. Older techniques had dated the mandible to an age of 160,000 years old, but the newer dating techniques aged it to 300,000 years old, matching with the age of the stone tools.

The fossil skulls have a face shape and teeth that look the same as modern humans. In contrast, the braincase looks more archaic. However, CT scans and statistical shape analysis of the fossil skulls show that they are nearly identical to those of modern humans. According to the researchers, these findings indicate that face shape was established early on in the evolution of Homo sapiens, though brain shape, and maybe even brain function evolved as the species evolved over time.

The scientists do not think that the population in Jebel Irhoud are the direct ancestors of all modern humans. Instead, they represent a just a small portion of a large, interbreeding population of Homo sapiens that spread across Africa around 300,000 to 330,000 years ago. Homo sapiens didn’t evolve from a single population; instead, their evolution occurred on a continental scale.

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