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Human history under revision

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Human history, as we know it, is that Homo sapiens arose around 200 000 years ago in eastern Africa and then spread across the globe around 60 000 years ago. However, this timeline has changed as a result of a number of new discoveries.

Researchers recently reported that Homo sapiens fossils from a site in Morocco called Jebel Irhoud date to more than 300 000 years ago, pushing the origin of our kind back by more than 100 000 years and moving the spotlight from eastern Africa to north Africa. Other finds indicate our species began colonising far-flung lands well before 60 000 years ago, reaching China by perhaps 120 000 years ago, Indonesia as early as 73 000 years ago and Australia by 65 000 years ago.

Fossil remains

But these timelines are by no means definitive. A new fossil found in Misliya Cave on the western slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel has been dated to between 177 000 and 194 000 years old using three independent methods. This means that the earliest known occurrence of our species outside of Africa is 50 000 years earlier than we thought.

The discovery in Israel sheds new light on the routes of modern human migration out of Africa, and helps scientists better understand the evolution of our own species. “It also means that modern humans were potentially meeting and interacting during a longer period of time with other archaic human groups, providing more opportunity for cultural and biological exchanges,” one of the authors of the paper detailing these findings, Rolf Quam, an anthropology professor at Binghamton University, says.

As recently as 10 years ago, the theory was that Homo sapiens replaced the archaic human species they encountered along the way, including the Neanderthals, without interbreeding with them. Now we know that wasn’t the case. Researchers studying DNA recovered from fossils have shown that as Homo sapiens entered new lands, it did in fact interbreed with archaic human species it encountered, including Neanderthals.

Previously, scientists surmised that the apparent long delay between when Homo sapiens originated and when it began to spread around the world might have had to do with climate and environmental conditions. If the species originated in sub-Saharan Africa around 200 000 years ago as was thought, the Sahara Desert could have been a formidable barrier to migration. But if Homo sapiens was in north Africa 300 000 years ago, there would have been no barriers to migration.

Another new find, of stone tools dating back 250 000 to 385 000 years in India, is adding to the revision of the Homo sapiens timeline. The researchers who found the tools wrote that the stone tools show a shift from early Stone Age technology – known as Acheulean – to the technology of the mid-Stone Age or Middle Palaeolithic. This indicates that populations with this culture were present in most parts of South Asia, adapting to local factors and with tool types evolving and changing through time. Previous studies had shown that Middle Palaeolithic tools didn’t enter India until around 140 000 years ago.

However, the researchers pointed out that since no fossils were discovered at the site, the tools could also have been made by Neanderthals, a cousin of homo sapiens. And tools, we are told, were the technological breakthrough that helped fuel our march to world domination.

Archaeologists have long considered the advent of the Levallois method of making stone tools (a strategy for obtaining broad, thin, sharp flakes from a chunk of stone called a core) to be a significant development in human prehistory. Which human species invented this strategy has been unclear – Levallois tools have turned up alongside fossils of Neanderthals and other extinct species, in addition to early modern humans. The discovery of Levallois implements with both the earliest Homo sapiens on record, at Jebel Irhoud, and the oldest known Homo sapiens outside of Africa, at Misliya, could be taken to indicate Levallois tools were invented by modern humans, and that they may have facilitated the spread of Homo sapiens out of Africa.

Copyright: stockdevil / 123RF Stock Photo

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