315,0000-Year-Old Fossils From Morocco Could Be Earliest Recorded Homo Sapiens

Aaron Brown
June 8, 2017

The earliest fossils belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens, have been uncovered in the arid mountains of Morocco.

The understanding of human origins has been turned on its head with the announcement of the discovery of fossils unearthed on a Moroccan hillside that are about 100,000 years older than any other known remains of our species, Homo sapiens.

The team dated tools and bones to between 300,000 and 350,000 years ago. New fossils from Morocco push the evidence back by about 100,000 years. These findings suggest a complex evolutionary history probably involving the entire continent, with Homo sapiens by 300,000 years ago dispersed all over Africa. Scientists say they are the oldest known Homo sapien remains ever found, and they were dug up in Morocco, not East Africa experts have previously said humans exclusively evolved. Consequently, many researchers believed that all humans living today descended from a population that lived in east Africa around 200,000 years ago. Finds are rare and each one must be studied intensively to provide evidence about the many species of pre-humans and early modern humans that populated the world. The different populations may have exchanged beneficial genetic mutations and behaviors, gradually nudging each other toward a more modern form of the species, Hublin said.

The site has been long-known as a source of human fossils, but the age of earlier discoveries at the site has been unclear. They used fire and their tools were made of flint from about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. He says some of the skull's features, especially its elongated cranium and the shape of the face, suggest it could be a more primitive ancestor of modern humans. It also follows that in these last couple hundred-thousand-years the Homo sapiens lineage has focused heavily on improving brain shape, and possible brain function.

It is believed that our lineage diverged from Neanderthals and Denisovans more than half-a-million years ago, but evidence for what happened since is hard to come by.

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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. "We realized this site was much older than anyone could imagine". But he says the idea that Homo sapiens "was assembled gradually" is "by no means a slam dunk" and needs to be shored up by more fossils from around Africa.

This mix of archaic and modern features supports the theory that Homo sapiens didn't burst onto the African scene fully formed. Around this time, the Sahara was green and filled with lakes and rivers.

"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. Their findings paint a picture of a hunting encampment where people passing through the landscape would spend the night, take shelter and clean and consume the animals they hunted, McPherron said.

As a young researcher, he recalled, a colleague confided him with the study of a mandible, or lower jaw, from the fossil trove. 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.

French paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin poses with the casting of a skull of Homo Sapiens discovered in Morocco on June 6, 2017 in Paris.

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