Oldest Homo Sapiens Fossils Found, Experts Say

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 11, 2003
Three fossil skulls recovered from the windswept scrabble of Ethiopia's dry and barren Afar rift valley lend archaeological credence to the theory that modern humans evolved in Africa before spreading around the world.

The fossils include two adult males and one child and are estimated to be 160,000 years old. They were found among stone tools and butchered hippopotamus bones. Cut marks on the skulls suggest an early form of mortuary practice.

Prior to the discovery of these fossils, evidence for the out-of-Africa theory of evolution for modern humans was largely based on the analysis of genetic variation in people alive today. Archaeological evidence from 100,000 to 300,000 years ago was scarce.

As a result, another theory that modern humans evolved simultaneously in various parts of the world at roughly the same time from ancient local populations, such as the Neandertals in Europe, maintained plausible traction.

Timothy White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the fossils he and his colleagues found in Ethiopia fill this gap in the archaeological record and support the argument that Neandertal was an evolutionary side branch unrelated to modern humans.

"The genetic data predicted we would find fossils that showed none of the characters we see in Neanderthal but rather would show characters on their way to becoming us, and indeed we have tested that hypothesis by finding these new fossils," he said.

The international team of scientists recovered the fossils outside the pastoral Afar village of Herto in 1997. Since the discovery, White and his colleague Berhane Asfaw have methodically dated, pieced together, and analyzed the fossils. They published two papers on the find in the June 12 issue of Nature.

"We are all very pleased we can contribute new information on a period that was previously very poorly known," said White, who serves as the team's American spokesperson.

Owing to the mix of primitive and modern features exhibited by the fossil skulls, White and colleagues assign them to a new subspecies of Homo sapiens they named Homo sapiens idaltu. Idaltu means elder in the Afar language.

Chris Stringer, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said that "in terms of completeness and dating these are perhaps the most important early human fossils found."

Previous fossils purportedly from this epoch have been fragmentary and were not well dated. The fossils from Ethiopia, however, were found sandwiched between two layers of ash from regularly erupting volcanoes and are very well preserved.

"These are complete enough to show they are modern humans and they are really well dated," said Stringer, who wrote an accompanying perspective in Nature on the find.

Ancient Lakeshore

The skulls were found within 650 feet (200 meters) of one another and had all eroded from the same geological layer of ancient river and beach deposits. No other skeletal bones were recovered and the team found no evidence for intentional burial.

Project geologists and paleontologists say that 160,000 years ago a shallow, freshwater lake teeming with crocodiles, catfish, and hippopotamus covered the region and supplied sustenance to the hominids that lived on the shore. Buffalo roamed the land.

A hippopotamus skull found amongst the remains has clear cut marks made by stone tools, though the team cannot tell whether the hominids actively hunted the animals or scavenged them.

The tools found amongst the remains document a transitional period in tool technology wherein earlier hand axe-dominated assemblages of the wood and bone Acheulean gave way to the flake-dominated assemblages of the Middle Stone Age, according to the team.

Each of the skulls also bears cut marks made by stone tools in what appear to be the result of some sort of post-death ritual.

"They were manipulating the skulls after the death of the individual as some sort of mortuary practice that involved not only de-fleshing—or taking the flesh off—but also keeping the bones around for some purpose," said White.

There is no evidence to suggest cannibalism, but the closest analog to these skulls come from Papua New Guinea, where the remains of the dead are retained for ritual practices that involved cannibalism.

"Could you have the same sort of modification of bones without any ingestion of human flesh? Of course you can," said White. "It is a completely open question that we will need additional remains to answer."

Susan Antón, a paleoanthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said that the cut marks do not appear cannibalistic in nature, but rather seem to represent some other sort of mortuary practice.

"This would signal the importance of culture in these ancient hominids, which should not come as a surprise to us," she said. "I expect they were much more like us than we have given them credit for being."

Unique Species?

White and colleagues assigned the fossils to a new species of Homo sapiens after comparing them to other fossils as well as a worldwide sample of several thousand human skulls.

They found that the fossils from Herto are similar to, but do not duplicate, the anatomy of modern humans. Their faces are longer, the skulls more robust, and the brow ridges are larger than those of modern humans, for example.

"It was a very large individual with a complex set of characters that show it is anatomically similar to modern humans, but there are a few differences," said White. "To recognize the differences, we named the subspecies."

According to White, the differences link anatomically modern humans with more archaic forms of humans. This link also fits in with the hominids' tool technology which represents a transition from the Acheulean to the Middle Stone Age, he said.

Stringer says the characteristics White and colleagues use to justify assigning the Herto fossils to their own subspecies of Homo sapiens may not be so unusual among modern humans.

"Personally, I don't think the subspecies name is very useful," he said. "I think those features would be found in other parts of the world in the Pleistocene, for example in Australia."

Whether the fossils represent an immediate ancestor of modern humans or are indeed the first modern humans, Stringer says that the fossils are a fantastic find that places the origin of modern humans in Africa.

The next question is where in Africa did modern humans evolve?

"There might be just one small place where modern humans originated and spread out from there, or did different bits of Africa contribute to the overall modern human pattern?" said Stringer.

Further research and better dating of the African fossils may eventually reveal an answer.

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Additional National Geographic Resources
Interactive Feature: Outpost: In Search of Human Origins
National Geographic magazine online: Who Were the First Americans?

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