A team of European and Moroccan scientists has found the fossil remains of five individuals who they believe are the most ancient modern humans (Homo sapiens) ever found.
In a remote area of Morocco called Jebel Irhoud, in what was once a cave, the team found a skull, bones and teeth of five individuals who lived about 315,000 years ago. The scientists also found fairly sophisticated stone tools and charcoal, indicating the use of fire by this group.
The researchers’ claim is controversial, however, because anthropologists are still debating exactly what physical features distinguish modern humans from our more primitive ancestors.
Virtual palaeoanthropology is able to correct distortions and fragmentations of fossil specimens. This reconstruction of the mandible from the Morocco specimen known as Irhoud 11 allows its comparison with archaic hominins, such as Neanderthals, as well as with early forms of anatomically modern humans.
Archaic forms of humans — other, earlier species of Homo — emerged more than a million years ago. Exactly how and when our species — Homo sapiens — evolved is a mystery. Up to now, the oldest known bones widely recognized as Homo sapiens were from people who lived in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. The new discovery in Morocco would push the date for the emergence of our species back another 100,000 years.
Jean-Jacques Hublin directs the department of human evolution at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He led the team that found a skull, bones and stone tools.
“This material represents the very root of our species, the oldest Homo sapiens ever found in Africa or elsewhere,” he says.
“The new finds from Morocco are a kind of snapshot in that whole process of transition from archaic to us,” Potts says. He suspects it’s a snapshot from a period just before modern humans evolved.
This is a common argument in anthropology — where does a newly discovered fossil, especially one with a mix of ancient and more modern features, fit in the bushy family tree of human ancestry?