Possible Homo sapiens fossils from 300,000 years ago discovered

Jebel Irhoud skull's tomographic reconstruction (Image  Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig)
Jebel Irhoud skull’s tomographic reconstruction (Image Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig)

Two articles published in the journal “Nature” describe different aspects of a study on various fossil bones including a skull and a jaw uncovered at a site in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. Several researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, studied the bones but also the remains of animals found with them to conclude that those were Homo sapiens of about 300,000 years ago, more than 100,000 years older than the most ancient Homo sapiens fossils so far known.

The site of Jebel Irhoud has been known since 1961, when the first fossil skull of an hominid was found. There were various discussions about the bones attribution because some researchers thought it belonged to a Neanderthal while others thought it belonged to a Homo sapiens. Over the years several bones have been discovered and the paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin also started being interested in participating in new excavations.

At the end of the last decade, the team of Jean-Jacques Hublin, who joined the Max Planck Institute in the meantime, found more than 20 bones of at least 5 hominids that included a skull fragments and a nearly complete jaw with various stone tools. A team of archaeologists led by Daniel Richter and Shannon McPherron, also of the Max Planck Institute, dated the site and human remains between 280,000 and 350,000 years with an average age of 314,000 years using a thermoluminescence technique.

A tooth attributed to a Homo sapiens found years ago at the Jebel Irhoud’s site was dated with a radiometric technique between 254,000 and 318,000 years with a probability peak at 286,000 years. This contradicts a previous dating that gave it “only” 160,000 years while it matches the age of certain species of zebra, leopard and antelope whose remains were found in the same layer of sediment.

If the new datings are correct it means that Homo sapiens existed around 300,000 years ago, while so far the oldest remains of modern humans were found in Ethiopia and dated about 195,000 years. However, doubts concern the attribution of the new skull because the traits are similar to previous species, in particular the elongated skull. The fact that the fossils don’t include a full face makes this kind of assessment difficult.

Jean-Jacques Hublin stated that he tried to get DNA from the bones of Jebel Irhoud but was unsuccessful. At Max Planck Institute, they’re very experienced in this type of operation so if they didn’t do it it means that we have to wait for new advances in genetic techniques to hope for new attempts.

In the absence of DNA, the discussions about the classification of the individuals that lived in Jebel Irhoud will continue on the basis of their anatomical characteristics. There will certainly be many discussions regarding the definition of modern human being. New examinations of all the oldest fossils attributed to Homo sapiens could lead to definitions different from the current one.

Studies will also be important in trying to better understand the various hominid migrations in Africa as there are currently many fossils of various species of the genus Homo scattered throughout the continent. Every new discovery brings new information about the possible relationships among the various hominids, a complex but very intriguing story.

Excavators working at Jebel Irhoud (Photo Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig)
Excavators working at Jebel Irhoud (Photo Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig)

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