A surprising discovery in Morocco is causing anthropologists to rethink the history of mankind.
Skull, face, and jaw bones dating to around 315,000 years ago were discovered near the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
This discovery disrupts the commonly held theory that humans evolved approximately 200,000 years ago from modern Ethiopia. The bones from Morocco are on the other side of Africa and date from much earlier in time. However, they are so close in appearance to the bones of modern humans that researchers are classifying them as Homo sapiens.
For many years, scientists believed that humans came from a proverbial Garden of Eden somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Up until the Moroccan discovery, two skulls found in Ethiopia dated from 160,000 and 196,000 years ago respectively were the oldest known human remains.
The Moroccan discovery has led researchers to rethink the Garden of Eden theory. The anthropologist who discovered the bones, Jean-Jacques Hublin, told Nature, “I would say the Garden of Eden in Africa is probably [all of] Africa—and it’s a big, big garden.”
The site of the discovery, Jebel Irhoud, has been known to researchers for some time.
In 1961, miners discovered hominid bones and primitive tools. At the time, researchers believed that the bones were from either a group of Neanderthals that settled in Africa or another early hominid species.
Hublin learned about the site and attempted to visit it in the ’90s. Unfortunately, the site had been buried by rocks by that point. After finally raising the necessary money to excavate the site, Hublin found 20 new human bones at Jebel Irhoud.
Hublin enlisted archaeologists Daniel Richter and Shannon McPherron to date the remains using modern methods.
The two scientists determined that the bones were from 280,000 to 350,000 years ago. That places the earliest known humans far from Ethiopia—across Africa and across the Saharan Desert.
It’s a frustrating fact of archaeology and anthropology that we can only learn and analyze our past as we make discoveries. There could be unmistakable evidence of where humans emerged, but we just haven’t found it yet. Luckily, academic cooperation and focusing on sites like Jebel Irhoud can still offer a great deal of information.
In fact, researchers had sequenced the genome of a boy who lived in South Africa around 2,000 years ago.
By analyzing his genome, they determined that his ancestors had split with modern African populations approximately 260,000 years ago. Until the discovery of the Jebel Irhoud bones, there was no hard evidence to back this claim, but now those researchers are vindicated.
Those who have seen the Jebel Irhoud fossils say that the bones look basically the same as modern human bones. When talking about the bones of the primitive man he discovered, Hublin said, “It’s a face you could cross in the street today.” Aside from slightly larger teeth, the skull looks much more like a modern human than a Neanderthal.
The study of the origin of Homo sapiens will likely never end.
There is always the chance that one more discovery will shift the prevailing views.
However, Hublin feels that the dating of the Jebel Irhoud bones firmly changes the origin story for mankind. He says, “What we think is before 300,000 years ago, there was a dispersal of our species—or at least the most primitive version of our species—throughout Africa.”