Researchers have found the oldest known evidence of Homo sapiens in Morocco. A skull was found in a cave called Jebel Irhoud, dating to the first appearance of the humanoid species back roughly 100,000 years more than was previously believed.
Until now, the oldest known human fossil dated to roughly 195,000 years ago, whereas the Jebel skull dates back to nearly 300,000 years ago.
Not only does this finding nearly double the species’ timeline of existence, but it also provides key details about the way that these early humans functioned. For example, the skull indicates that modern facial traits began evolving quite early on despite the back of the skull remaining elongated in a manner similar to that of archaic humans and a genus pre-dating H.sapiens. In addition, the location of this fossil indicates that the evolutionary processes of humans involved the entire African continent, not just an isolated region as was previously believed.
The skull was not the only fossil found at this site, though. Researchers were thrilled to find sets of partial jaws, teeth, leg and arm bones from at least five different individuals. Many of these fossils shared the same characteristics— i.e. larger teeth, elongated skulls and more evolved facial features. In addition, tools found near the Jebel site also confirm that the early humans of this region could control fire, as was indicated by some of the burnt flint tools discovered at the archaeological site.
As it turns out, H.sapiens share many of the same facial features as Neandertals, not just the elongated skulls. This indicates to some researchers that facial features may evolve first before any other parts of the skeleton. Today, though, the closest living relatives to H.sapiens are chimpanzees and bonobo monkeys, our common ancestor for over six million years. The various species that have split from H.sapiens are known as hominins is what modern-day humans are currently classified as.
Top photo by Tim Dorr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Natalie Wickstrom is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia. She most likely wrote this piece to the tune of a movie score whilst chewing gum.