Cradle of Homo Sapiens shifted to Morocco - and 100,000 years up in time
« We are in the habit of thinking that the cradle of modern humanity can be localized in East Africa, 200,000 years ago, but our work has demonstrated without ambiguity that Homo Sapiens was probably already present all over the African continent 300,000 years ago. Long before Homo Sapiens went Out of Africa, there occured an earlier dispersion inside Africa."
Homo Sapiens evolved at least 100,000 years earlier than previously thought, in Morocco, palaeoanthropologists have discovered, debunking the theory that the Rift Valley of Ethiopia was the ‘cradle of mankind.’
The world’s oldest Homo sapiens fossils - which could represent the first human family - were excavated in a barite mine at Jebel Irhoud, 60 miles west of Marrakesh, and date to between 300,000 and 350,000 years old.
Until now, experts believed all humans living today descended from a population that lived in East Africa. The earliest examples of our species were found in the 1960s by Richard Leakey, at Omo Kibish in south-western Ethiopia dating from 195,000 years ago.
But new evidence could shift the birthplace of mankind further north and west. A recent study even suggested that our earliest hominid ancestors may have split from apes in Europe (See article in Q-MAG.org).
The new fossils, of three young adults, one adolescent and a child of around eight years old, prove that early modern humans were already established at Jebel Irhoud at least 300,000 years ago.
“There is this notion that somewhere in East Africa there is a Garden of Eden where our species first developed and then spread within Africa, and outside of Africa,” said Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
“Our results challenge this picture in many ways. Very early in the process we realised the site was much older than anyone could imagine and we came to the conclusion that the layer richest in hominids around the site was around 300,000 years, so that was much older than anything else in Africa.
“These dates were a big wow. This material represent the very root of our species. So there is no Garden of Eden in Africa. Or if there is, it is the whole of Africa.”
Fossil remains were first discovered by miners working at the Jebel Irhoud in the 1960s, who while digging a new gallery, hit a pocket of reddish sediment which collapsed, revealing stone artefacts, bone and a skull.
But initial dating suggested they were only 40,000 years old.
However experts were puzzled by the features of the bones which had some modern human traits, but also more ancient brain cavities.
So in 2004, experts at the Max Plank Institute began a painstaking new excavation to hunt for new fossils and re-date the stone tools using the latest scientific methods.
Using state-of-the-art scans and statistical shape analysis based on hundreds of measurements the experts were able to recreate a computer-generated image of the original face of one of the fossils, and found it was virtually indistinguishable from that of modern humans living today.
The only difference was a slightly more elongated braincase, which would have held a different shaped brain.
Reporting their findings at a press briefing, Prof Hublin said:
“It’s not just that we have an older date for the older forms of Homo sapiens but also it allowed us to envision a rather more complex picture for the emergence of our species with different parts of our anatomy evolving at different rates.
“There is an idea that humans like us appeared rather quickly but our results show this is very unlikely to be true.
“The story of our species in the last 300,000 years is mostly the evolution of our brain.”
Dr Philipp Gunz, of the Max Plank Institute added:
"Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage.
The fossils were found in deposits containing animal bones showing evidence of having been hunted, with the most frequent species being gazelle.
By looking at the animals present, archaeologists were able to recreate the landscape and climate from the time, to give a picture of the environment for our early ancestors.
"Conditions were wetter than they were today, a little bit more humid, a landscape that is still open but with some clumps of trees, a sort of mixed environment,” added Max Planck Institute archaeologist Shannon McPherron.
“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."
“We also find evidence of the fires that they had and the overall picture that one gets is a kind of hunting encampment, a place where people were passing through the landscape and spending the night, taking shelter there in search of subsistence.”
The new discoveries were reported in the journal Nature.