The Oldest Homo Sapiens discovered in Morocco

A discovery that will change world human history

17 JULY 2017,
The Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco. Credit Shannon McPherron/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
The Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco. Credit Shannon McPherron/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The remains of the oldest Homo Sapiens dating back 300,000 years were discovered three years ago in Jbel Irhoud, a former barite mine located near El Youssoufia, in west-central Morocco. "This discovery represents the very root of our species, the oldest Homo sapiens ever found in Africa or elsewhere," says Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig Germany and co-author of the work with Moroccan Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer.

The fossils of the Homo Sapiens of Jbel Irhoud are currently stored at the National Institute of Archeology and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco. This was revealed by Aomar Akerraz, the director general of the National Institute of Sciences and Heritage (INSAP), at a press conference. "I do not hide from you that the discovery of the five skulls, one probably belonging to a woman, was already known three years ago." The Director of INSAP also welcomed the efforts and work of the entire team, including Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) and the Collège de France Of paleoanthropology). "The origin of the Homo sapiens takes a long old stroke from 100,000 years to 300,000 years, which implies a reassessment of all knowledge at our disposal," said Moroccan researcher Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer. Very moved, this man never stopped repeating: "the discovery is a real exploit that made me very happy". The Moroccan co-author of the shocking discovery of the first Homo Sapiens speaks of it.

The New Fossils push the evidence back by about 100,000 years

An international team of scientists has dated fossils found in Jebel Irhoud, about 90 kilometers northwest of Marrakesh, Morocco, to be 300,000 years old — 100,000 years earlier than the previous specimens of Homo Sapiens discovered in east Africa. The scientists said this as a significant finding, not just because of the age, but because of the location it’s long been believed that East Africa was where modern humans evolved, but finding the specimens in northwest Africa challenges that idea. Jebel Irhoud's fossils have a long history. Six fossils were first found at the site in the early 1960s during mining operations, including two skulls and a jaw bone, but getting back to the site to further explore the area proved difficult for scientists, due to continued use of the land. However, in 2004, Hublin and his team were given permission to return and prepare the area for a dig, which started in 2005.

Part of the dating technique the team used was thermoluminesence, a method that allows scientists to date material that was once heated. In this case, the team found flint that was likely heated as the early humans fashioned their Middle Stone Age tools. The researchers are quick to note that these Homo Sapiens aren't the same as the one that led to modern humans. However, there were similarities. Their faces were short, flat and retracted under the neurocranium, the upper and back part of the skull. "It's the face of people you could cross in the street today," Hublin said. Brain development into what modern humans have today would have taken place over tens of thousands of years.

Jebel Irhoud's long & deep history

Jebel Irhoudis a Palaeolithic archaeological site in Morocco located about 55 km south-east of Safi. Discovered in 1961, this site has delivered many human remains whose dating remained for a long time imprecise due to the mining activities on the site. Because of their location, these remains have been mistakenly attributed to the Neanderthals. In a relatively dry climate, Jebel Irhoud's environment was a relatively open environment, covered with shrubs in a fairly disseminated manner, including a fauna of equidae, bovids, gazelles, rhinoceros and various predators. At the time the site was occupied by early hominines, it would have been a cave. Rock and sediment were removed by researchers at the site in the 1960s. When the researchers assessed their findings, they discovered that they came from five separate individuals: three adults, a child and an adolescent. The findings help answer a question that had plagued paleoanthropologists for years: Why did these fossils look more primitive than fossils dated from the same time? It turns out they weren't from the same time at all.

The New Men of Jbel Irhoud already have a face and teeth of modern appearance, and also a cranial box of large size which retains an oblong shape and some archaic aspects. Implementation of the most advanced techniques of computerized tomography and statistical form analysis on hundreds of three-dimensional measurements show that the facial morphology of the fossils of Jbel Irhoud is almost indistinguishable from that of the present Man.

Brain development of the Oldest Homo Sapiens

The skulls of today's men are characterized by a combination of characters that distinguish them from those of our ancestors and cousins in the evolutionary tree of the Hominines: a reduced, graceful face and a globular cranial case. The Men of Jbel Irhoud already possess a face and teeth of modern appearance, and also a cranial box of large size but which retains an oblong shape and some archaic aspects. Implementation of the most advanced techniques of computerized tomography and statistical form analysis on hundreds of Three-dimensional measurements show that the facial morphology of the fossils of Jbel Irhoud is almost indistinguishable from that of the present Man.

Our work shows that the human face has acquired early its modern characteristics but that the shape of the brain and probably its functions have continued to evolve within the line of Homo Sapiens. The morphology and age of the fossils of Jbel Irhoud confirm the interpretation of an enigmatic cranial fragment from Florisbad in South Africa and 260,000 years old as another ancient milestone of our species. The fossils of Jbel Irhoud represent the oldest traces of Homo sapiens on the African continent. However, representatives of this first evolutionary phase are present in various parts of the continent: in Jbel Irhoud (300,000 years), in Florisbad, South Africa (260,000 years), and in Omo Kibish, Ethiopia).