Deep inside an old mine in Morocco, 300,000-year-old bones belonging to Homo sapiens have been discovered, challenging the conventional theory that Homo sapiens sprang into existence 200,000 years ago in East Africa, in what has often been referred to as the cradle of civilization.
Archaeologists have rescued the bones from five or more people at Jebel Irhoud, once a barite mine that is around 60 miles west of Marrakesh. While the excavations at the Moroccan mine have been going on for many years now, it wasn't until a recent dating test was conducted that archaeologists truly understood what they were dealing with. It has now been shown that one tooth and various stone tools found near the human bones are at least 300,000-years-old, with some objects even dating to 350,000 years.
Jean-Jacques Hublin, one of the scientists from the Mac Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig who works on the Moroccan site, admitted to being astonished by the 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens bones. These bones are currently the oldest specimens of the Homo sapiens species that we have and are leading many to question the old idea about our species evolving 100,000 years later in East Africa.
"My reaction was a big 'wow'. I was expecting them to be old, but not that old."
As Hublin explained, the Homo sapiens bones found in the Moroccan mine show that our species was actually alive and well and in all areas of Africa 300,000 years ago, as the Guardian report.
"This gives us a completely different picture of the evolution of our species. It goes much further back in time, but also the very process of evolution is different to what we thought. It looks like our species was already present probably all over Africa by 300,000 years ago. If there was a Garden of Eden, it might have been the size of the continent."
The old site of Jebel Irhoud is one that has both intrigued and puzzled scientists ever since bones were discovered here in the 1960s. In 1961 and 1962, bones and stone tools were first discovered in this Moroccan mine. Yet without the dating methods that we have today, these bones were thought to be those of Neanderthals and no older than 40,000 years.
Back then, the most accepted view of evolution was that our modern Homo sapiens species grew out of the Neanderthal line. Now, of course, scientists understand that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens are separate species, with the two once living alongside each other and, in same cases interbreeding, as modern DNA tests confirm.
Fossils found in Morocco suggest the Homo sapiens lineage became distinct as early as 350,000 years ago https://t.co/Fv76Y8YOA2 pic.twitter.com/t37cDeA3go
— New Scientist (@newscientist) June 7, 2017
— New Scientist (@newscientist) June 7, 2017
In the mine of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, more bones have just been found, adding to the treasure trove already there. Included in these remains are a partial skull, teeth, a jawbone, and different limb bones. These limb bones once belonged to an adult, a child of juvenile age, and a much younger child, perhaps around 8-years-old. They were found inside of a limestone cave with a damaged roof, which is presumed to have occurred during previous mining operations.
Excitingly for archaeologists, these Homo sapiens bones sit beside other remnants of inhabitants now long gone. These remnants include gazelle bones, flint tools, and bits of charcoal, most likely left untouched inside of the cave for hundreds of thousands of years after the last roaring fire was made.
Jean-Jacques Hublin has described the emotional connection felt in the presence of the 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens bones.
"It's rather a desolate landscape, but on the horizon you have the Atlas mountains with snow on top and it's very beautiful. When we found the skull and mandible I was emotional. They are only fossils, but they have been human beings and very quickly you make a connection with these people who lived and died here 300,000 years ago."
Before these 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens bones were discovered in Africa, it made sense for scientists to believe in the East Africa evolutionary theory of modern humans. This is because up until now, the oldest remains of Homo sapiens were found in Ethiopia and have been shown to be 195,000-years-old.
On Wednesday, Nature published the first paper on these 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens bones. In this paper, scientists described how they compared the fossilized bones to more modern human species like us, along with Neanderthals and even older relatives of ours who would have lived at least 1.8 million years ago.
When comparing all of the evidence, scientists found that the Homo sapiens bones most resembled modern humans, at least facially. The lower jaw was much larger than modern Homo sapiens though. Also, the shape of the braincase is quite different to ours today, as the braincase of these 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens was much more elongated than ours is. But apart from physical differences like these, Hublin believes that these ancient ancestors of ours were not too dissimilar from us.
"The face of the specimen we found is the face of someone you could meet on the tube in London."
Were you surprised to discover that 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens bones had been found in Morocco and how do you think this will affect current thinking about evolution in Africa?
[Featured Image by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]