Hundreds of thousands of years ago, around 62 miles west of what would eventually become Marrakesh, a group of people lived in a cave overlooking a lush Moroccan landscape.
That cave is now called Jebel Irhoud, and bones of its former occupants have been recently unearthed by an international team of scientists. They mark the earliest fossilized remains of Homo sapiens ever found. Until now, that honor belonged to two Ethiopian fossils that are 160,000 and 195,000 years old respectively. But the Jebel Irhoud bones, and the stone tools that were uncovered with them, are far older—around 315,000 years old, with a possible range of 280,000 to 350,000 years.
It’s not just when these people died that matters, but where. Their presence in north Africa complicates what was once a tidy picture of humanity arising in the east of the continent.
Based on the earlier age estimates, scientists had always viewed these people as a primitive group of humans who were clinging on in North Africa while their more modern cousins were sweeping out of the East. “People thought that North Africa had nothing to do with modern human evolution, and that this was a relict population,” says [anthrophologist Philipp] Gunz. “Now we know that they’re close to the root of the Homo sapiens lineage.”
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