On a hilltop in the Sahara Desert (Morocco, far northern Africa), at a retired mining site called Jebel Irhoud, a group of paleoanthropologists recently changed the course of history.
The team was led by one Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. The story of Jebel Irhoud kicked off in the 1960’s, when baryte mining operations at the site uncovered some pretty amazing, then-dubbed pre-human artefacts.
Starting in 1961, myriad stone tools and hominid fossils were uncovered after an on-site miner discovered what would later be identified as a hominid skull; ‘hominid‘ being the group that comprises all modern and extinct Great Apes–feat. humans–as well as all their immediate ancestors. This miner, presumably somewhat but not entirely unaware of the value of this piece, gifted the skull to an engineer who then held on to the artefact as a souvenir. Eventually, the skull was relinquished to the University of Rabat, Morocco, leading to the first paleontological expedition to Jebel Irhoud in 1961.
On account of the work carried out during this expedition, the Jebel Irhoud site was first falsely dated to just 40,000 years ago. As such, and because of the stone tools present that were historically associated with ancient relatives of us modern humans, the Moroccan hominid fossils from Jebel Irhoud were originally attributed to Neanderthal; a ‘sister species’ of Homo sapiens thought to have evolved directly from Homo erectus alongside us modern humans.
Re-enter Jean-Jacques Hublin.
Following on some forty years later, starting in 2004, Hublin’s group revisited Jebel Irhoud. To say the least, he is a little modest about the work they carried out there…
“We were very lucky,” Hublin says. “We didn’t just get dates, we got more hominids.”
Hublin’s team got a lot more hominids, but the most exciting finding was the spectacularly older date they calculated for the Jebel Irhoud site: a brand-spanking 300,000 years.
They also reexamined the hominid remains, and attributed them to Homo sapiens, rather than Neanderthals, making these the oldest known record of the modern human race. In doing so, Hublin’s team pushed the world’s start date for our species back by almost 100,000 years.
Furthermore, “artifacts found with the fossils suggest that activities typical of modern humans also emerged by 300,000 years ago”, says paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks, George Washington University. It also evidences a “a lot of communication across the continent,” Brooks says, “a pan-African phenomenon, with people expanding and contracting across the continent for a long time.”
Just listen to Hublin explain the significance of this pan-African phenomenon.
The original article, Hublin et al. (2017) “New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens”, published in Nature 546 can be found here.
All other references linked to in-text.