By John Kerr 08/06/2017

A new report of the oldest ever human fossil – estimated to be around 300,000 years old – dramatically pushes back our best guess of when Homo sapiens first walked the Earth.

Two papers published in Nature today report the dating and analysis of several fossils discovered at the archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. An international research team led by Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) uncovered the fossil bones of Homo sapiens along with stone tools and animal bones at Jebel Irhoud.

Fossils were first found at the site during mining excavations in the late 1960s, and initially thought to be Neanderthal in origin. Until now the exact age of the remains was uncertain; previous estimates dated the fossils to be around 160,000 years old.

The analysis of further bones and tools discovered at the site, published today, indicates that the fossils are infact around 300,000 years old – almost twice as old as previously thought. Scientists used cutting edge thermoluminescence dating to gauge the approximate age of stone tools. Reconstruction of the human fossils and comparison with other hominid fossils indicates they are the remains of humans and not an earlier ancestor or Neanderthals.

Prior to today’s announcement, the oldest known human fossils were the Omo remains, unearthed in Ethiopia some 50 years ago and estimated to 195,000 years old. Now, the new reports in Nature reveal that Homo sapiens were around, and in other parts of Africa, long, long before this.

“The fact that we have already Homo Sapiens 100,000 years before and in Morocco changes our understanding and hypothesis of our species dispersal across Africa,” said Southern Cross University geochronologist Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau, who worked on dating the fossils, including ‘Irhoud 3‘ – a section of jawbone from a child, presumed to be between seven and eight years old.

“Irhoud 3 is the oldest Homo Sapiens accurately dated, it’s the first of our kind,” said Joannes-Boyau.

Virtual palaeoanthropology is able to correct distortions and fragmentations of fossil specimens. This reconstruction of the Irhoud 11 mandible allows its comparison with archaic hominins, such as Neandertals, as well as with early forms of anatomically modern Humans. Credit: Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI-EVA Leipzig.


Composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) based on micro computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils. Dated to 300 thousand years ago these early Homo sapiens already have a modern-looking face that falls within the variation of humans living today. However, the archaic-looking virtual imprint of the braincase (blue) indicates that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage. Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig.

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