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article imageFossils shaking up our understanding of human origins

By Karen Graham     Jun 7, 2017 in Science
There is a broad consensus among scientists that human evolution began on the African continent. Generally, fossils of Homo sapiens have been found in East Africa or even Sub-Saharan Africa, but a fossil find in Morocco has set evolution on its head.
Not one, but two new studies were published Wednesday in the online journal, Nature that detail the discovery of the skulls, limb bones and teeth of five individuals unearthed on a Moroccan hillside.
The Moroccan fossils are significant because they are 100,000 years older than any previous Homo sapiens fossils found and could very well give us a clearer picture of where, when and how we evolved in Africa. Up until this latest find, the earliest known H. sapiens fossil was found in Ethiopia and was 195,000 years old.
South view of the site with the inset showing the location of Irhoud in northwest Africa. The remain...
South view of the site with the inset showing the location of Irhoud in northwest Africa. The remaining deposits are located in what was a tunnel-like karstic feature dipping to the east that was later fully exposed.
Journal Nature-Letter
The fact that the new fossils were unearthed at a site called Jebel Irhoud, located between Marrakech and Morocco's Atlantic coast, indicates that H. sapiens were more widespread on the African continent than first believed, and not confined to a population living in East Africa.
"Our results challenge this picture in many ways," Jean-Jacques Hublin, a professor at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who led the research at the Moroccan site, said on a press call, reports Mashable.
Hublin added, "The message we would like to convey is that our species is much older than we thought and that it did not emerge in an Adamic way in a small 'Garden of Eden' somewhere in East Africa. It is a pan-African process and a more complex scenario than what has been envisioned so far."
Irhoud 11 mandible (lateral and occlusal views).
Irhoud 11 mandible (lateral and occlusal views).
Could all of Africa be the Garden of Eden?
The fossils were unearthed in a cave-like setting and consisted of three adults, one adolescent, and one child believed to be about 8-years-old. Archaeologists speculate they group lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The bones of gazelles, zebras, as well as other animal bones were found, as well as stone tools that were perhaps used as spearheads and knives.
There was also evidence that fire was used, not only for warmth and protection but to help in shaping the stone tools present. The flint-like stone came from an area about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the site. The Moroccan fossils were originally collected between 2007 and 2011, according to U.S.News.
artifacts found at the Jebel Irhoud site.
artifacts found at the Jebel Irhoud site.
Hublin says that primitive H.sapien species were apparently spread out all through Africa, and the different population groups over time probably exchanged beneficial genetic mutations and behaviors, all helping to evolve the species into what we see today. He says that if there is a Garden of Eden, it is the African Continent.
John Shea, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, said it is easier to look at the different local populations as all being part of one big group - He uses a subway system in a big city as a way to explain his idea. Everyone belongs in the city, yet they are all connected by the subway systems. "These are parts of a network," through which ideas and genes flowed, he said.
Even though the Jebel Irhoud people had more elongated braincases than the globular one like we have today, Max Planck Institute paleoanthropologist Philipp Gunz says that face shape was established early on in our evolution, but braincase and brain function may have taken a bit longer.
But even still, with their relatively modern looking face and teeth, wearing a hat, they would have blended in perfectly in a crowd today, says Hublin.
More about Moroccan fossils, Africa, Evolution, Jebel Irhoud, Modern humans
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