Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI-EVA, Leipzig
Until now, the story of early modern humans began about 200,000 years ago in East Africa, a cradle where our species was thought to have emerged and evolved. But a pair of studies published today in Nature describing fossilized human remains and stone tools found in Morocco suggests modern humans had moved across the continent at least 100,000 years earlier and continued to evolve.
"There is no Garden of Eden in Africa. Rather, the Garden of Eden is the size of Africa," Jean-Jacques Hublin, paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The find: Fossilized remains of a partial skull and lower jaw were found along with stone tools at a mining site between Marrakech and the Atlantic Coast of Morocco. Hublin and colleagues analyzed the new fossils along with others discovered at the same place in the 1960s and found facial and dental features that suggest they belong to the earliest Homo sapiens. (All together, they found the remains of three young adults, one adolescent and one child.) In a second study, Shannon McPherron and his collaborators dated the stone tools at the site and determined them to be about 300,000 - 350,000 years old. What it means: Modern humans emerged earlier than we thought and dispersed across the continent, continuing to evolve. The fossils are from people somewhere between Homo sapiens and modern humans - and closer to the latter. The evolution between the two was gradual and researchers want to know where it happened. The newly-found skull fossils indicate their faces were already similar to our's but that while the brain had reached its final size 300,000 years ago it had not evolved to our modern mind.