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Oldest Homo sapiens dating back 300,000 years found in Morocco

If someone were to enter a time machine and go back 300,000 years to the vicinity of Jebel Irhoud, now part of Morocco, he might find people whose faces are quite similar to those of present-day humans. The most striking difference would likely be in the profile, which reveals a shorter, more elongated skull. The physical features of these Homo sapiens and the era in which they lived are the subject of two articles published simultaneously (Nature, June 6, 2017). In these studies, the researchers reveal that dating analysis of the bones of three adults, an adolescent and an 8-year-old child and the artifacts associated with them indicate that modern man may have lived in North Africa at least 100,000 years earlier than previously believed. Until now, the three oldest H. sapiens fossils were from sub-Saharan East Africa. The oldest such fossil, from the Omo Kibish site in Ethiopia, was no older than 195,000 years (see map). The consequences of the new find for our understanding of human evolution are enormous. “It was a big ‘wow,’ said French paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Anthropological Evolution in Germany, principal author of the paper on human fossils, speaking at a press conference. “The material at Jebel Irhoud was much older than anything else in Africa related to our species.” One surprising aspect of these H. sapiens fossils is the disparity between the parts of the brain, which the French author described as an unusual combination of features that are very advanced (face and teeth) and very archaic (the shape of the braincase). “It’s a much more complex picture of the evolution of our species, with parts of the human anatomy evolving at different rates,” he explained. The shape of the brain, therefore, may have changed during the more recent evolution of modern humans, becoming more globe-shaped and undergoing changes in the proportions. The cerebellum, for example, would have grown.

Shannon McPherron/MPI EVA Leipzig The Jebel Irhoud site provided bones of five modern humans that were datedShannon McPherron/MPI EVA Leipzig