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Oldest fossils of our species

Researchers have uncovered 300,000 year-old fossil bones of Homo sapiens in Morocco, the oldest reliably-dated fossil evidence of our species yet.

A composite reconstruction of the fossils from Jebel Irhoud based on micro computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils. Image via Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig.

A discovery in Morocco points to the oldest Homo sapiens fossils found so far. An international team of researchers uncovered 300,000 year-old fossil bones of Homo sapiens, a find tha is approximately 100,000 older than any other previously discovered Homo sapiens fossils.

The discovery, reported in two papers published June 8, 2017 in the journal Nature (here and here), was made at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco — the site of multiple hominid fossil discoveries dating back to the early 1990s.

The team noted that the fossils reveal a complex evolutionary history of mankind that likely involved the entire African continent. Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin is a a palaeoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Hublin said in a statement:

We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200,000 years ago in east Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago. Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa.

Previously, the oldest securely-dated Homo sapiens fossils were discovered in at two sites in Ethiopia, dating 195,000 and 160,000 years old. Consequently, many researchers believed that all humans living today descended from a population that lived in east Africa around 200,000 years ago. Shara Bailey, anthropology professor at New York University, said in a statement:

Many of these fossils have been known for a long time, but fossils discovered during the recent excavations significantly added to the collection making it possible to undertake a comprehensive study of the cranial and dental remains. All data point to a set of derived H. sapiens features suggesting that some aspects of the modern human form began as early as 300,000 years ago. Moreover, it indicates that modern human origins was likely a pan-African event, rather than being concentrated in east Africa.

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Bottom line: A new discovery in Morocco represents the old Homo sapiens fossils yet discovered.

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Eleanor Imster