Anthropologist helps push back evolutionary history

Dr Matthew Skinner from the School of Anthropology and Conservation (SAC) has been involved in a major project analysing and dating new fossils from Morocco that alter our understanding of the origin of our species, Homo sapiens.

Led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany (where Dr Skinner was a research fellow prior to coming to Kent) and the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Morocco, a diverse team of scientists sought to identify and date the new fossils, stone tools and animal bones found at the site of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.

The dating analyses conducted on the fossils and surrounding sediments found that they are over 300,000 years old, pushing back the fossil evidence for the origin of humans in Africa by more than 100,000 years. Previous fossil finds of a similar nature in Ethiopia had previously been dated to around 160,000-200,000 years old.

Dr Skinner’s involvement on the project involved analysing the teeth preserved in the fossils and confirming, along with analyses of other parts of the skeleton, that they belonged to individuals of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Collectively, these findings about the bones, stone tools and sediments of this site change the understanding of the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens in Africa by suggesting they originated much earlier, and over a much larger area of the African continent, than previously thought.

The findings are being published in two papers in Nature, titled New fossils from Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) and the Pan-African origin of Homo sapiens and The Age of the Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) and the origins of the Middle Stone Age.

Dr Skinner has also written about the findings in a piece on The Conversation.

Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig

A composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) based on micro computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils. Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig