The oldest Homo sapiens fossils yet will make us rethink everything we thought we knew about the origin of our species.
An archaeological site in Morocco called Jebel Irhoud contained the fossilized human remains that have challenged what we know so far. In 1961, miners stumbled upon a complete fossilized skull. Scientists initially assumed that the skull belonged to an African Neanderthal. However, testing revealed that the remains are older—and of a different species—than the scientists expected. Archaeologists were also able to dig up more fossilized remains from the same site.
Scientists thought that our species, Homo sapiens, arose out of East Africa around 200,000 years ago. This was the accepted wisdom as recently as yesterday. It turns out that modern humans as a species may be at least about 100,000 years older than previously thought. The findings also suggest that humans may have evolved all across Africa, not just in the east. These discoveries thus make some huge and significant changes to what we know of our own species's history.
The Homo sapiens fossils in Jebel Irhoud belong to at least five individuals, one of whom was a child and another that was an adolescent. The remaining three are adults. These individuals lay in the same layer, alongside sharp flint tools, charcoal lumps, and gazelle bones.
The researchers published two papers detailing their finds. According to the first paper, the researchers compared the fossils to those of modern humans, Neanderthals, and ancient human relatives. The individuals from Jebel Irhoud resembled modern humans in terms of facial structure. However, their braincase was more elongated than that of modern humans. This may indicate that our brain evolved with our species, and we did not inherit it from a predecessor.
The researchers say that the fossils belonged to individuals who would probably not look out of place in modern society. “The face of the specimen we found is the face of someone you could meet on the tube in London,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, one of the researchers.
The second paper, meanwhile, gives more insight into what the individuals were doing in the area. Upon analysis, researchers found that the flint tools came from an area about 40 kilometers to the south of Jebel Irhoud. The individuals also repeatedly sharpened the tools and did not make new ones. It's possible that the individuals came to the area to hunt gazelle, which may explain why there were several gazelle bones at the site.
Since the discovery is so new, there are still a lot of things to iron out. While the discovery is certainly exciting, other scientists are questioning some of the researchers' claims. There is no doubt that our species is older than we thought, but we can't yet be certain about where exactly our species evolved. Though archaeologists found Homo sapiens fossils in North Africa, it doesn't mean that our species was born there instead of East Africa. We'll probably need to watch out for more developments as more information comes in.
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