The earliest known Homo sapiens were unearthed in an archaeological site in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. The new uncovered set of fossils and stone tools revealed that the origins of our species date back to 300,000 years ago.
[Image Source: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig]
Earliest Homo sapiens
An international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) and the National Institute of Archaeology and Heritage or INSAP (Rabat, Morocco) unearthed fossil bones of the earliest known Homo sapiens as well as stone tools and animal bones. The site they were digging at is located nearly two hours west of Morocco's capital city of Marrakesh in Jebel Irhoud. These findings suggest that there was an early complex network of human evolution that occurred within the entire continent of Africa. Research leader and palaeoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin said that the findings wind the clock back of the human origins much earlier than they previously thought.
"We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200 thousand years ago in East Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300 thousand years ago. Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa".
Researchers previously believed that the earliest origin of the Homo sapien species originated from the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia dating back to 195,000 years ago. Another site in Ethiopia, in Herto, contained a Homo sapiens fossil that dated to 160,000 years ago.
The Jebel Irhoud site
The Moroccan site is popular since the 1960s for its rich human fossils and Middle Stone Age artifacts. Jebel Irhoud's geological age, however, is shrouded with uncertainties making the Irhoud hominin complicated to interpret. But as the new excavation project that began in 2004 the number of in situ Homo sapiens fossils increased and the site became a prominent archaeological spot. Jebel Irhoud is now considered as the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site with solid evidence of the early stage of the human species.
[Image Source: Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI EVA Leipzig]
Amongst the fossil remains found were skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least five Homo sapiens. The team used the thermoluminescence dating method on heated flints found in the same batch of deposits in order to pinpoint a precise chronology for the fossils.
[Image Source: Mohammed Kamal, MPI EVA Leipzig]
The pieces of flints generated an age of approximately 300,000 years ago, which means that the origins of the human species are 100,000 years older than previously thought. "Well dated sites of this age are exceptionally rare in Africa, but we were fortunate that so many of the Jebel Irhoud flint artifacts had been heated in the past", says Daniel Richter, a geochronology expert from the Max Planck Institute.
According to Richter, using a more advanced piece of equipment from Freiberg Instruments GmbH, the team was able to obtain consistent dating figures from the fossils. "This allowed us to apply thermoluminescence dating methods on the flint artifacts and establish a consistent chronology for the new hominin fossils and the layers above them". By employing state of the art dating methods, the team successfully validated the dates obtained from the thermoluminescence with new measures of radioactivity sediments from the site. The research team managed to confirm the accurate age of the Jebel Irhoud, validating its reputation as the oldest and richest Middle Stone Age site in the world.
[Image Source: Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig]
Early human evolution in Africa
The fossils from the Jebel Irhoud site have the characteristics of a modern-looking face and teeth but with a larger and more archaic braincase. Hubilin and his research team combined the collected data of the fossils to generate the facial features of the ancient Homo sapiens found on the site. The resulting features of the 3D generated skull look very much similar to modern humans.
[Image Source: Sarah Freidline, MPI EVA Leipzig]
"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", says Philipp Gunz, a palaeoanthropologist from the Max Planck Institute.
The collective findings of early Homo sapiens across Africa indicate a complex network of the evolution of the human species within the continent. With human fossil findings from Florisbad, South Africa (260,000 years old), Omo Kibish, Ethiopia (195,000 years old), and now in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco (300,000 years old).
Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of INSAP explained that the new discoveries in Morocco link the Maghreb with the early evolution that occurred in Africa. "North Africa has long been neglected in the debates surrounding the origin of our species. The spectacular discoveries from Jebel Irhoud demonstrate the tight connections of the Maghreb with the rest of the African continent at the time of Homo sapiens' emergence".
The stone technology used in east and southern Africa, from the early Homo sapiens period, also corresponds with the flints found in Jebel Irhoud. "It is likely that the technological innovations of the Middle Stone Age in Africa are linked to the emergence of Homo sapiens", says archaeologist Shannon McPherron from the Institute. According to the researchers, the spreading of Homo sapiens across the African continent approximately 300,000 years ago is due to the changes in both biology and behavior.
The findings of this research project were published in Nature.