"Homo sapiens, despite being so well known, was a species without a past until now", says María Martínon-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist at University College London, noting the scarcity of fossils linked to human origins in Africa.
Homo sapiens has been revealed to be 100,000 years older than previously assumed - ageing our species by a whole third and dislodging East Africa as the cradle of humankind. The new date for the fossils suggests some elements of Homo sapiens anatomy developed a more modern appearance much earlier than thought, says Adam Van Arsdale of Wellesley College, who was not involved with the study.
"It is not the story of it happening in a rapid way in a "Garden of Eden" somewhere in Africa", he said.
The discoveries by global researchers at an archaeological site in Jebel Irhough in Morocco suggest the evolution of man is more complex than previously thought, involving the entire African continent. "The Garden of Eden is the size of Africa".
The oldest human fossils ever discovered have been unearthed in Morocco in a finding hailed as a significant step in the research of human ancestry and origins. Barite miners excavating a hill in western Morocco hit a pocket of red sediment with ancient stone tools, limbs and a human skull, which the workers gave to the quarry doctor.
The Jebel Irhoud fossils are roughly 100,000 years older than any previously described modern human bones. The braincase, however, was more elongated than that of modern humans. When it comes to their brains, however, the differences are marked. How quickly the relevant branch of Homo heidelbergensis turned into something that could be called Homo sapiens was therefore obscure.
An worldwide research team has uncovered 300,000 year-old fossil bones of Homo sapiens, a find that represents the oldest reliably dated fossil evidence of our species. Rather, Hublin's research suggests that modern man emerged all over Africa.
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"The findings are dated to about 300 thousand years ago and represent the oldest securely dated fossil evidence of our own species".
The researchers said they were trying to work out why the world came to be dominated by one "extremely successfully" type of human, when once there had been a number of different types, such as Neanderthals, Denisovans and the recently discovered 'hobbits', living alongside each other in Africa, Europe and Asia. Prof Hublin's discoveries would appear to shatter this view. Using thermoluminescence dating to measure electrons on heated flints found in the area, the researchers were able to precisely date the fossils. Many of these locations have similar tools and evidence for the use of fire. "The main skull looks like something that could be near the root of the H. sapiens lineage", says Klein, who says he would call them "protomodern, not modern". They also applied new dating methods, which pushed back the age of all the fossils to a stunning 300,000 years.
"But our new data reveals that Homo sapiens were spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago".
At the time, the notion that humans originated in Africa did not exist, so the remains were not in the running for Homo sapiens status.
He added that while these early Homo sapiens' brains were shaped differently from ours, they were starting to develop larger cerebellums - a development that would be key to their eventual rise to dominance on Earth. However, Hublin and colleagues report the latest Jebel Irhoud specimens have face, jaw and teeth structures that align "with early or recent anatomically modern humans", while skull shapes are more closely aligned with more archaic hominids. "It looks like our species was already present probably all over Africa by 300,000 years ago".
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