I I n 1971, anthropologist Chris Stringer traveled to museums across Europe to study and measure as many Neanderthal skulls as possible for his Ph.D. One enigmatic fossil, described as an “African Neanderthal” and dated to 40,000 years ago, particularly intrigued him. Thanks to a tip shared over coffee in Paris, he found the skull stored in another anthropologist’s cupboard.
Stringer was very puzzled by what he saw.
“I knew it was no Neanderthal,” recalled Stringer, who is now a Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum in London. “It completely lacked their puffed-out cheek bones, mid-facial prominence, and enormous nose.”
Over the years, the fossil puzzled other scientists as well. A new excavation project began in 2004 at the site where the “African Neanderthal” was found in the 1960s — Jebel Irhoud, located west of Marrakesh in Morocco. Two new papers published in Nature report the astonishing results of this lengthy project: The so-called Neanderthal and related fossils turn out to be 300,000–350,000-year-old Homo sapiens, making them the oldest known remains for our species.
The twenty-two Homo sapiens fossils discovered so far at Jebel Irhoud push back the origins of our species by over one hundred thousand years. To put this into perspective, the prior oldest securely dated Homo sapiens fossils were known from the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, and were dated to 195,000 years ago.
“Even though the Jebel Irhoud fossils currently represent the oldest Homo sapiens fossil remains, we do not believe that North Africa is the ‘cradle of humankind,’” Philipp Gunz, senior author of the first of the two papers, said.