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08 June 2017, 02:10 | Colleen Roy
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New discoveries and new dating methods show that in fact numerous bones belong to modern Homo sapiens, and they lived as far back as 300,000 or 350,000 years.
The unearthing, reported in two papers in the journal Nature (one, two), significantly pushes back the origins of our species: the find is approximately 100,000 older than any other previously discovered Homo sapiens fossils.
But the more dramatic discovery is where they were found. Hublin referred to the discovery expanding what we think of as the human race's "Garden of Eden" where we evolved into the species of today, from a location in sub-Saharan East Africa to a wider region: "I would say the Garden of Eden in Africa is probably Africa - and it's a big, big garden".
The fossils reveal a complex evolutionary history of humankind that likely involved the entire African continent, notes the team, which professor Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco, led. "It is a pan-African process and more complex scenario than what has been envisioned so far", Hublin said.
Because they didn't previously have fossil evidence of Homo sapiens from 300,000 years ago, this helps to fill a small part of that gap in the fossil record. The next-oldest fossils of Homo sapiens, the scientific name for humans, are about 200,000 years old. Before this discovery, it was believed that the early modern humans we evolved from were in Africa 200,000 years ago and looked very similar to modern humans.
"The new finds confirm "modern humans do not suddenly appear like the Big Bang, with all the bells and whistles that we associate with modern humans", agrees paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University, who was not associated with the study".
The fossils - which comprise, skulls, teeth and long bones of at least five early humans - represent the oldest evidence of our own species. They used fire and their tools were made of flint from about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. Exactly how and when our species - Homo sapiens - evolved is a mystery.
The specimens displayed a combination of physical traits, particularly the face, that closely resembled those of modern, living human beings, and other "more primitive" aspects such as a flatter, elongated skull.
"Rather, we would support the notion that around 300,000 years ago, very early forms of Homo sapiens were already dispersed all over Africa".
How do we know how old the fossils are?
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.
This discovery, combined with a Homo sapien skull found in South Africa, challenges the theory that Homo sapiens were confined to east Africa. Inside, excavators found flint tools that were fashioned into spear heads.
"It means they were no slouches intellectually", Professor Groves said.
Hublin said his team's discovery will "rewrite the textbooks". The fossils from Jebel Irhoud archaeological cave site near the Morrocan capital of Marrakesh display a modern-looking face and teeth and a large but more elongated, archaic looking braincase.
"Our results challenge the preconceived notion of early modern humans in East Africa in many ways regarding the date of emergence of our species, the geographical conditions of this emergence and the conditions of the evolution of the early forms of Homo sapiens", Hublin said.
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