Nature turns the origins of modern humans – not Neanderthals, not Denisovans, but Homo sapiens like you and me – back more than 100,000 years, and a long way from where they should have been:
At an archaeological site near the Atlantic coast, finds of skull, face and jaw bones identified as being from early members of our species have been dated to about 315,000 years ago. That indicates H. sapiens appeared more than 100,000 years earlier than thought: most researchers have placed the origins of our species in East Africa about 200,000 years ago.
The finds, which are published on 7 June in Nature, do not mean that H. sapiens originated in North Africa. Instead, they suggest that the species’ earliest members evolved all across the continent, scientists say.
“Until now, the common wisdom was that our species emerged probably rather quickly somewhere in a ‘Garden of Eden’ that was located most likely in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, an author of the study and a director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Now, “I would say the Garden of Eden in Africa is probably Africa — and it’s a big, big garden.”
Hublin first visited Jebel Irhoud in the 1990s, only to find the site buried. He didn’t have the time or money to excavate it until 2004, after he had joined the Max Planck Society. His team rented a tractor and bulldozer to remove some 200 cubic metres of rock that blocked access.
Their initial goal was to re-date the site using newer methods, but in the late 2000s, the team uncovered more than 20 new human bones relating to at least five individuals, including a remarkably complete jaw, skull fragments and stone tools. A team led by archaeological scientist Daniel Richter and archaeologist Shannon McPherron, also at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, dated the site and all the human remains found there to between 280,000 and 350,000 years old using two different methods.
An earlier origin for H. sapiens is further supported by an ancient-DNA study posted to the bioRxiv preprint server on 5 June. Researchers led by Mattias Jakobsson at Uppsala University in Sweden sequenced the genome of a boy who lived in South Africa around 2,000 years ago — only the second ancient genome from sub-Saharan Africa to be sequenced. They determined that his ancestors on the H. sapiens lineage split from those of some other present-day African populations more than 260,000 years ago.
Hublin says his team tried and failed to obtain DNA from the Jebel Irhoud bones.