According to recent reports, an international team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have uncovered the skulls of two adults and a child dating from 160,000 years ago—40,000 years earlier than the previous oldest remains of Homo Sapiens. This has major implications for the “Out of Africa” theory that modern humans evolved only in Africa and not in several places around the world. The fossils are also “unmistakably non-Neanderthal and show that (modern) humans had evolved in Africa long before the European Neanderthals disappeared,” Clark Howell of UC Berkeley says. If that’s true, it means that there was never a Neanderthal stage in human evolution.
The fossils were discovered in Herto village in the middle Awash area of Ethiopia, about 140 miles northeast of Addis Ababa. The area has been one of the richest discovery grounds for paleontologists. The Berkeley team and its Ethiopians colleagues had previously found pre-human remains there from about 5.5 million years ago—some of the earliest hominids ever discovered.
Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum calls the new finds, “complete enough to be identified as early modern humans since they show the characteristic globular shape of the braincase and the facial features of our species. But both the adult skulls are huge and robust, and also show resemblances to more primitive African fossils.”
The bones have been allocated to a subspecies, Homo sapiens idaltu. All three of the skulls discovered show evidence of human modification, such as cut marks. These likely represent mortuary practices rather than cannibalism.
Volcanic sediments associated with the fossils were dated to 160,000 using the isotope method. Archaeological layers also revealed evidence that these beings were big game hunters, such as a hippopotamus and a range of stone axes and tools. At this time, it is unclear whether the evolution of Homo sapiens occurred rapidly in only one region of Africa or was a more widespread process across the continent. One thing is certain: African now has the oldest clear evidence of modern human origins. It likely played an important part in the development of human behavior.
“So we will need further evidence from the whole continent to build up a complete picture of how our species began,” Stringer concludes. “Nevertheless, the Herto fossils are landmark finds in unraveling our origins.”
Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Bradshaw Foundation