PARIS • Early Homo sapiens roamed Africa 300,000 years ago, sporting modern-looking faces that would not stand out in a crowd today, according to research that pushes back our origins by a hundred millennia.
A groundbreaking fossil discovery in Morocco obliterates two decades of scientific consensus that our forefathers emerged in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, according to two studies published in the journal Nature. The findings may also reorganise the human evolutionary tree and eliminate certain extinct Homo relatives as potential human ancestors.
Two teams of researchers reported on skull and bone fragments from five ancient humans, along with the stone tools they used to hunt and butcher animals, from a prehistoric encampment at Jebel Irhoud, not far from modern-day Marrakesh.
"This material represents the very root of our species, the oldest Homo sapiens ever found in Africa or elsewhere," said palaeoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.
"Regarding Homo sapiens, what we say is that the dispersal of the species predates 300,000" years ago.
Previously, the oldest dated Homo sapiens remains, at 195,000 years, were from Ethiopia. This led to the contention that East Africa was the evolutionary "Garden of Eden", where our species arose before spreading through Africa and beyond.
The results suggest that the so-called cradle of humankind was continent-wide, the teams said.
Remarkably, the small, flat face and jaw shape of those ancient Homo sapiens closely resembled today's humans, the team said.
Brain size was similar too, though arranged in a flatter, more elongated skull.
"If they would have a hat, probably (they) would be indistinguishable from other people," Dr Hublin told journalists ahead of the study's release. "It's the face of people you could cross in the street today."
More likely to give them away would have been a strong, stocky, muscular body.