The first of our kind: scientists discover the oldest Homo sapiens fossils at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

Published 8 June 2017
The mandible Irhoud 11 The mandible Irhoud 11 is the first, almost complete adult mandible discovered at the site of Jebel Irhoud. (Picture credit: Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI EVA Leipzig)

New finds from the archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco push back the origins of our species by 100,000 years and show that by about 300,000 years ago important changes in our biology and behaviour had taken place across most of Africa. Once again, state-of-the art techniques by Southern Cross University researchers has played a key role in direct-dating the human remains.

An international research team led by Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) and Dr Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage (INSAP, Rabat, Morocco) uncovered fossil bones of Homo sapiens along with stone tools and animal bones at Jebel Irhoud.

Southern Cross University geochronologist Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau from Southern Cross GeoScience's Geoarchaeology and Archaeometry Research Group (GARG) was part of that team.

The discoveries reported today in two papers in the journal Nature reveal a complex evolutionary history of mankind that likely involved the entire African continent.

Dr Joannes-Boyau made a methodological breakthrough that allowed him to accurately date directly the fossil. He is co-author of the paper 'The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age'.

“I have dedicated a large part of my career in improving direct dating of fossils, and the new methodological breakthrough was extracted from my PhD research. The recalculated age of Irhoud 3 was the last chapter of my thesis, using all the new advanced we gathered in the previous years,” said Dr Joannes-Boyau, now a Senior Research Fellow at Southern Cross University.

Both genetic data of humans living today and fossil remains point to an African origin of our own species, Homo sapiens. Previously, the oldest securely dated Homo sapiens fossils were known from the site of Omo Kibish, in Ethiopia, dated to 195,000 years ago.

“The fact that we have already Homo sapiens 100,000 years before and in Morocco changes our understanding and hypothesis of our species dispersal across Africa,” said Dr Joannes-Boyau.

To provide a precise chronology for these finds, researchers used thermoluminescence dating method on heated flints and ESR dating on the fossil teeth directly, yielding an age of approximately 300,000 years old, pushing back the origins of our species.

The team was able to recalculate a direct age of the Jebel Irhoud 3 mandible found in the 1960s. Using new dosimetric data from Jebel Irhoud sediments and methodological improvements in electron spin resonance dating method, this fossil’s newly calculated age is much older than previously realised.

“Irhoud 3 is the oldest Homo sapiens accurately dated, it’s the first of our kind,” Dr Joannes-Boyau said.

The Jebel Irhoud fossils currently represent the most securely dated evidence of the early phase of Homo sapiens evolution in Africa.

“The new finds reshape our understanding of our species dispersal in Africa and potentially even our geographical origin,” Dr Joannes-Boyau said.

Official press kit
Official press kit – including the press releases, images, captions (including credits), and video – is available at https://www.eva.mpg.de/homo-sapiens/presskit.html

Photo: Picture credit: Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI EVA Leipzig

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