300,000 Year-Old Homo Sapien fossils Discovered

In early June paleoanthropologists (yes - an even cooler title than plain old paleontologist!) re-dated and realized some of the oldest Homo sapien fossils ever found had been discovered in the 1960s in Jebel Irhoud.

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The fossils, as well as some artifacts, have been dated to around 300,000 years old and were discovered in Morocco. Why is this important? Well it could push the inception of our species back an extra 100,000 years earlier than originally thought. According to leading experts and discoveries made in the field, modern humans as we know them evolved around 200,000 years ago. But the new fossils shift that window in back to 300,000 years.

Let's go back to that cool word I mentioned in the first sentence...paleoanthropologists. What is a paleoanthropologist? And how are they different from a paleontologist? Well paleoanthropology is the study of the formation and the development of the specific characteristics of humans. It dates back to the 18th century, but has begun playing a more and more major role in our understanding of us in recent years, especially with the advent of more effective technology and dating techniques. 

Let's talk about where these beings were found. They were found in Jebel Irhoud. Jebel Irhoud was not a novel place to find remains, in fact some bodies were originally discovered by miners in the 1960s, but were (as we know now) incorrectly identified as 40,000 year-old Neanderthals.

But...Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute, wasn't quite satisfied with this conclusion. In fact, he believed the skull shapes were all wrong for Neanderthals and actually more closely resembled early humans from abut 150,000 years ago. 

This was the beginning of a long road for Hublin though. At the time conventional wisdom in the field held that early humans evolved in East Africa. With that fact understood, it would make no sense that an even earlier human could be found in North Africa.

This started in the 1980s...and he didn't let go of it for decades. Finally, in 2004, he was able to find 5 different Homo sapiens were found: 3 adults, 1 adolescent, and 1 child, preserved in clay. He got lucky again because the remains were burned. Now, you might think damaged remains would be a bad thing, right? Well, not when it comes to dating. The burn allowed for thermoluminescence dating. Long story short, this technique is able to test to see how much  radiation an object has absorbed since it was last heated, thus providing a strong baseline for dating.

The ability to use thermoluminescence dating, which were backed up further by electron spin resonance dating (from the remaining teeth enamel) confirmed Hublin's original theory: the specimens were early humans dating back to 300,000 years ago. 

Hublin and his team began calling these remains  "early Homo sapiens." In an e-mail to Ars Technia, Hublin clarified that they aren't modern humans, but instead "representative of populations directly ancestral to us."

According to Richard Potts, who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program, in an email to the Washington Post he described the new findings to have “small faces shaped distinctively like modern humans, although the brain pans fall outside the range of humans alive today." But, he added, this isn't a big deal “so do several other clearly fossil Homo sapiens from Africa and Europe,” he said.  Comparing these with facial position on known human skulls from Ethiopia, Potts said, “I think we have a good instance of early Homo sapiens from Irhoud.” Additionally, a similar jaw and "modern chin" that all modern humans share are found in this. They also found proof of use of tools and other artifacts. 

The above image is of Jean-Jacques Hublin at Jebel Irhoud and is liscensed under creative commons and wikimedia commons. The image was taken by Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig.