A composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco based on micro computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils. Dated to 300 thousand years ago, these early Homo sapiens already have a modern-looking face that falls within the variation of humans living today. However, the archaic-looking braincase indicates that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage. | Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig

Oldest Known Fossils for Our Species Discovered in Morocco

Remains of the earliest known Homo sapiens date to 300,000–350,000 years ago in North Africa, and push back the origins of our species by over 100,000 years.

Published On 06/07/2017
1:00 PM EDT
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.
View looking south of the Jebel Irhoud, Morocco site. The remaining deposits and several people excavating them are visible in the center. At the time the site was occupied by early hominins, it would have been a cave, but the covering rock and much sediment were removed by work at the site in the 1960s. | Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig
Two of the new Jebel Irhoud, Morocco fossils in situ as they were discovered during excavation. In the center of the image, in a slightly more yellow brown tone, is the crushed top of a human skull (Irhoud 10) and visible just above this is a partial femur (Irhoud 13) resting against the back wall. Not visible behind the pointed rock (between the femur and the skull) is the mandible (Irhoud 11). The scale is in centimeters. | Steffen Schatz, MPI EVA Leipzig
Some of the Middle Stone Age stone tools from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. Pointed forms such as a–i are common in the assemblage. | Mohammed Kamal, MPI-EVA Leipzig
The excavation area is visible as a dark notch a little more than half way down the ridge line sloping to the left. | Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig
An illustration of El Graeco, foreground, living in a savannah environment in the Eastern Mediterranean 7.2 million years ago. | Velizar Simeonovski