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Homo Sapiens Are Older Than Previously Thought

These are two views of a 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. Image Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

New fossils found in a cave in Morocco move the date of the first Homo sapiens back 100,000 years. This finding shifts the date of the origin of our species to more than 300,000 years ago.

Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, has been known as an archaeological site of interest since 1960, when a miner first discovered a human skull within the cave. Since then archaeologists have found human fossils and Middle Age artifacts on the site. More recent excavations unearthed hominid fossils, animal bones, stone tools, and remnants of a fire, which has allowed researchers to utilize different methods of dating than had previously been used.

Among the 16 fossils found in the same level as the animal bones and stone tools were bones for at least five individuals, including a teenager and a child. The skull bones found on the site suggest that while these early Homo sapiens had a flat face and teeth that resemble modern humans, they retained the larger, elongated braincase at the back of the head that is more reminiscent with earlier hominids. 

This finding helps illuminate an earlier finding from Florisbad, South Africa, which scientists had dated to approximately 260,000 years ago. The large distance between these fossil findings suggest that the previous theory that Homo sapiens originated in a constrained area of East Africa requires revision. Instead, this points to Homo sapiens having a more complex origin story, possibly invoving the entire length of Africa.

The research also discovered some of the diet for these ancient relatives: gazelle, wildebeest, zebra and other game, and occasionally an ostrich egg.

Want to learn more about early hominids? While these resources have not yet been revisited and updated with this latest discovery and timeline, there's still lots of interesting information in them: Becoming Human is an interactive documentary that tells the story of our origins. The Charles Darwin: Evolution and the Story of Our Species website from the BBC brings you the story of one man’s struggle with the most radical idea of all time. In Hominid Diet, learn about what fossils reveal about the unusual diet of early hominids. The Introducing Ardi collection gives students the chance to learn more about Ardipithecus ramidus (aka Ardi), paleontology, evolution, and prehistoric theories. Discovering Ardi is a series of six videos (each between one and four minutes) that chronicle the discovery of Ardi in Ethiopia. In the Primitive Ape-Man Science Update, hear about an important piece of the human family tree scientists recently found. In the Comparing Species through the Fossil Record lesson (9-12), students begin to understand how physical features noted in the fossil record provide clues about the evolution of species.

Interested in how scientists make these discoveries? The Be an Archaeologist site is a great resource for you to learn more about the job of an archaeologist. In the Exploring Human History lesson (9-12), students learn that anthropology is divided into four main subdivisions and anthropologists often work in more than one subdivision at the same time. In the Fossils 1: Fossils and Dinosaurs lesson (3-5), students explore what can be learned from fossils, how they are formed, and the difference between fact and theory. In the Fossils 2: Uncovering the Facts lesson (3-5), students explore how information is gained by studying fossils and see how fossil facts can be based on comparisons with living organisms. In the Learn to Think Like an Archaeologist lesson (6-8), students practice artifact analysis and interpretation by studying prehistoric and historic artifacts. In the Fossils and Geologic Time lesson (9-12), students learn about the development of the geologic time scale, the major time periods in earth's history, and the role fossils play in this history. 

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