Newly Discovered Oldest Human Fossils Push Our Origin Back By 100,000 Years

A reconstruction of the skull belonging to the earliest example of our own species, Homo sapiens. Philipp Gunz/MPI EVA Leipzig/License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

We know from genetic evidence that all humans alive on this planet owe their origins to Africa, where our species first evolved. But rather than a single origin of our species somewhere in East Africa, the discovery of the fossils in Morocco instead lend support to the pan-African emergence of Homo sapiens. “If there is a Garden of Eden, it is Africa,” said Hublin.

It suggests that the lineage that gave rise to humans evolved in pockets all across the continent, which were periodically linked together as ecosystems changed, allowing for the mixture of genes and the spread of technological innovations. Any beneficial mutation would then spread from one population to another, and would have been magnified by positive selection in each group.

The site in which the fossils were discovered at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. Shannon McPherron/MPI EVA Leipzig/License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

It is important to remember that some 300,000 years ago, the continent of Africa did not look like it does today. The cave in which the fossils were found would have sat in the middle of a grassland dotted with small stands of trees, as gazelles, zebras, and wildebeests grazed, while lions and early Homo sapiens stalked them. The Sahara did not yet exist, meaning that our species was free to migrate vast distances, connecting populations that in modern times are now separated.

The authors are quick to point out that while the individuals these fossils represent would have blended into a crowd of people alive today, they were not modern humans as we tend to think of the term. Their brains were not as well developed and they did not have the intelligence that we associate with our own species.

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Some of the Middle Stone Age tools from Jebel Irhoud. Credit: Mohammed Kamal, MPI EVA Leipzig (License: CC-BY-SA 2.0)

 

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