300,000-year-old Skulls Could Rewrite the Human Origin Story
Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig
Source: The Independent
Precisely when and where did our species emerge? Anthropologists have struggled with that question for decades, and scattered clues had suggested the answer lay somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa about 200,000 years ago. But new evidence outlined in two papers published in the journal Nature challenges that hypothesis. Instead, the authors describe recently discovered remains that suggest the first Homo sapiens showed up more than 100,000 years earlier than we thought in a place many experts didn't suspect. The fossils could represent the earliest known examples of H. sapiens ever found (if confirmed by further research), and they serve as evidence that members of our species lived beyond sub-Saharan Africa. In 1961, a crew of miners was plowing into a dense wall of limestone in a hilly region west of Marrakesh when they struck a soft patch. The hardened beige surface gave way to a mound of cinnamon-colored dirt. Peeking out of the earth was a sliver of human skull. A bit more digging revealed a nearly-complete skull, which the miners turned over to their field doctor. As word about the discovery spread, researchers flocked to the area. They uncovered more remains, including several pieces of jaw bone and a fragment of an arm. At the time, scientists pegged the fossils as roughly 40,000 years old, a few thousand years before our extinct European relatives, the Neanderthals, were thought to have vanished. But they hadn't dug deep enough. Roughly 40 years later, anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin and his team from the Max Planck Institute excavated the half-dozen layers of soil beneath the land where the skull and arm bones had been discovered. There, the team found remains that they say belong to at least five individuals, along with a set of flint blades which had likely been burned, perhaps by nearby cooking fires. Using a dating technique that measures how much radiation had built up in the flint since it was heated, Hublin and his team say the ancient bones belong to people who lived roughly 300,000-350,000 years ago. "These dates were a big wow," Hublin said on a recent call with reporters. Still, the biggest discovery didn't come until the team looked more closely at the skulls.