On June 8 a team of researchers headed by Jean-Jacques Hublin published a pair of papers describing a new set of fossils excavated from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. The authors argue that these new discoveries are the earliest known Homo sapiens found anywhere in the world. This leads naturally to two simple questions: was this individual a human, and did it really live roughly 315,000 years ago?
To answer the first question, Hublin et al. used digitized 3D landmarks (or, a consistent set of points on all of the skulls) to statistically analyze the shape of the Jebel Irhoud specimens and compare them to a set of other hominin fossils. This allows you to compare shape differences independent of size differences. This analysis suggests that these specimens are more similar to Homo sapiens than any other species. That being said, this method is far from conclusive. Several of the major features that we use to identify Homo sapiens in the fossil record, including a vertical forehead, globular braincase, and protruding chin, are absent from the Moroccan fossils. Are these Homo sapiens because they are more similar to us than anything else, or do we need to rely on the presence of those specific traits to define the species? If they are humans, then we need to update our definition of what it means to be a human, morphologically. Even if not, it’s clearly something extremely human-like living in a time and place where we never expected to find one.
The second question has its own set of complications. The team (Richter et al.) used thermoluminescence dating of artifacts and electron spin resonance (ESR) dating of teeth to arrive at the date of the fossils. Thermoluminescence and ESR dating both measure radiation exposure (or accumulated dose) to determine the age of an artifact or fossil. The ESR dating suggested a date of 252 – 318 ka, but with a p-value that was not low enough to be statistically significant. In and of itself, that would be a tenuous basis for such an extraordinary claim, but the thermoluminescence dating of burned artifacts found in association with those fossils revealed a date of roughly 315 ka for the geological layer as a whole. This was repeated many times over. It’s not perfect, but the date seems reasonably secure.
What does this all mean? Why has this been reported everywhere, from social media to TV news? Most of the coverage has focused on the date. These may be the earliest members of our species ever discovered. That’s cool, and especially since it pushed back the first appearance date so far, from ~200,000 to ~315,000 years ago. But I think that misses the most interesting aspect of this discovery. It makes us reconsider what it means to be human in an evolutionary sense.
As the authors note in the title of their article, this find makes the case for a pan-African evolution of Homo sapiens. Whatever these individuals were, they were different from us, that much is clear, but they were more similar than anything else we’ve found outside of Homo sapiens. Did the traits that we use to define ourselves evolve piecemeal, across Africa? The discoverers of these new fossils suggest as much, arguing that the clear delineations between archaic and modern Homo sapiens no longer apply. It might be that these specimens represent a bridge between those two groups. If so, what we call them is largely a question of what definition you like to use for a species. That’s a question for another time, and maybe one that’s best to answer by looking at other species, where the stakes don’t seem so high.
One way you could characterize the last several decades of research in human evolution is to say that our understanding has changed from a linear evolution to a bushy one. We’ve filled out the tree a little more, and we see more of the branches and evolutionary dead-ends in our lineage. These finds are doing the same thing, but for the evolution of our own species, regardless of what they’re called. Hopefully this will inspire a new set of excavations across Africa, looking for more fossils to confound us and upend our expectations.
Hublin, J. J., Ben-Ncer, A., Bailey, S. E., Freidline, S. E., Neubauer, S., Skinner, M. M., Bergmann, I., Le Cabec, A., Benazzi, S., Harvati, K. & Gunz, P. (2017). New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature, 546(7657), 289-292.
Richter, D., Grün, R., Joannes-Boyau, R., Steele, T.E., Amani, F., Rué, M., Fernandes, P., Raynal, J.P., Geraads, D., Ben-Ncer, A. & Hublin, J.J. (2017). The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age. Nature, 546(7657), 293-296.
Rene Studer-Halbach is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. He works on ecological niche modeling and community structure in South African Plio-Pleistocene primates.