Discovery in Morocco alters history of Homo sapiens

The earliest fossils belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens, have been uncovered in the arid mountains of Morocco. The new discovery in Morocco would push the date for the emergence of our species back another 100,000 years.

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".

"This is much older than anything else in Africa that we could relate to our species", said team lead Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Plank Institute to IFLScience. Up until this news, the narrative was that humans first evolved in Eastern Africa some 200,000 years ago.

Previously, the oldest securely dated Homo sapiens fossils were discovered at two sites in Ethiopia, dating 195,000 and 160,000 years old.

If we look at the history of human evolution, until the mid 1980s it was thought modern humans evolved in Africa and shortly after migrated to Europe around 40,000 years ago, Prof Grün said.

A jaw bone from the oldest Homo sapien fossils ever discovered. Modern humans have a similar overall cranial capacity, but we possess a smaller cerebellum, suggesting that our gray matter is wired in a different way.

"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".

With few fossil remains to work with, the evolutionary history of modern humans is full of holes and relies heavily on conjecture. It also follows that in these last couple hundred-thousand-years the Homo sapiens lineage has focused heavily on improving brain shape, and possible brain function. He says some of the skull's features, especially its elongated cranium and the shape of the face, suggest it could be a more primitive ancestor of modern humans. A skull was found in Florisbad, South Africa, in the 1930s and originally dated to 260,000 years ago, but it's fragmentary and the exact date is subject to debate, the researchers said.

"Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa".

Through a dating technique called thermoluminescence, which measures how long it's been since a material with crystalline minerals was heated or exposed to sunlight, they determined that the site was anywhere between 300,000 to 350,000 years old.

How do we know how old the fossils are?

But he says the idea that Homo sapiens "was assembled gradually" is "by no means a slam dunk" and needs to be shored up by more fossils from around Africa.

"The Sahara was green and filled with lakes and rivers", Nature said.

The tools and fire evidence also point to this being a site linked with the Middle Stone Age.

"What distinguished the Middle Stone Age is a shift from large, heavy-duty stone tools to an emphasis on producing stone flakes that were smaller and lighter", said Shannon McPherron, archaeologist at Max Planck and one of the study authors. Hublin's team returned to the site in 2004 hoping to clarify that date - and instead stumbled upon more fossils.

Human remains, including a skull, were first discovered at the Jebel Irhoud site by miners in the 1960s.