Letter

The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age

  • Nature volume 546, pages 293296 (08 June 2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nature22335
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Abstract

The timing and location of the emergence of our species and of associated behavioural changes are crucial for our understanding of human evolution. The earliest fossil attributed to a modern form of Homo sapiens comes from eastern Africa and is approximately 195 thousand years old1,2, therefore the emergence of modern human biology is commonly placed at around 200 thousand years ago3,4. The earliest Middle Stone Age assemblages come from eastern and southern Africa but date much earlier5,6,7. Here we report the ages, determined by thermoluminescence dating, of fire-heated flint artefacts obtained from new excavations at the Middle Stone Age site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, which are directly associated with newly discovered remains of H. sapiens8. A weighted average age places these Middle Stone Age artefacts and fossils at 315 ± 34 thousand years ago. Support is obtained through the recalculated uranium series with electron spin resonance date of 286 ± 32 thousand years ago for a tooth from the Irhoud 3 hominin mandible. These ages are also consistent with the faunal and microfaunal9 assemblages and almost double the previous age estimates for the lower part of the deposits10,11. The north African site of Jebel Irhoud contains one of the earliest directly dated Middle Stone Age assemblages, and its associated human remains are the oldest reported for H. sapiens. The emergence of our species and of the Middle Stone Age appear to be close in time, and these data suggest a larger scale, potentially pan-African, origin for both.

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Acknowledgements

The Jebel Irhoud project is jointly conducted and supported by the Moroccan Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine and the Department of Human Evolution of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA). We thank S. Albert (MPI-EVA) for sample preparation and for measuring the flint samples, E. Pernicka (Curt-Engelhorn-Zentrum Archäometrie, Mannheim) for neutron activation analysis and D. Degering (Verein für Kernverfahrenstechnik und Analytik, Rossendorf) for performing γ-ray spectrometry. The Max Planck Society funded the fieldwork and the thermoluminescence analysis. V. Aldeias (MPI-EVA) excavated the partial skull. B. Larmignat illustrated the stone artefacts. Philipp Gunz commented on the manuscript, and Les Kinsley (RSES, ANU) assisted with laser ablation measurements. Parts of the US/ESR research were funded by ARC discovery grants (DP0664144 to R.G.) and (DP140100919 to R.J.-B.)

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, Leipzig 04103, Germany

    • Daniel Richter
    • , Teresa E. Steele
    • , Jean-Paul Raynal
    • , Denis Geraads
    • , Jean-Jacques Hublin
    •  & Shannon P. McPherron
  2. Institute of Ecology, Subject Area Landscape Change, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Scharnhorststrasse 1, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany

    • Daniel Richter
  3. Freiberg Instruments GmbH, Delfterstrasse 6, 09599 Freiberg, Germany

    • Daniel Richter
  4. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • Rainer Grün
    •  & Renaud Joannes-Boyau
  5. Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland 4111, Australia

    • Rainer Grün
  6. Southern Cross GeoScience, Southern Cross University, Military Road, Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia

    • Renaud Joannes-Boyau
  7. Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis California, USA

    • Teresa E. Steele
  8. Institut National des Sciences de L’Archéologie et du Patrimoine, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Hay Riad, Madinat Al Ifrane, Angle rues 5 et 7, BP 6828, Rabat, Morocco

    • Fethi Amani
    •  & Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer
  9. Paléotime, 6173 Rue Jean Séraphin Achard Picard, 38250 Villard-de-Lans, France

    • Mathieu Rué
    •  & Paul Fernandes
  10. Archéologie des Sociétés Méditerranéennes, (ASM, UMR 5140 CNRS), Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3, MCC, Route de Mende, 34199 Montpellier cedex 5, France

    • Mathieu Rué
  11. De la Préhistoire à l’Actuel : Culture, Environnement, Anthropologie (PACEA, UMR 5199 CNRS), Université de Bordeaux, MCC, Bâtiment B18, Allée Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, CS 50023, 33615, Pessac, France

    • Paul Fernandes
    •  & Jean-Paul Raynal
  12. Centre de Recherches sur la Paléobiodiversité et les Paléoenvironnements (CR2P, UMR 7207 CNRS), Sorbonne Universités, MNHN, UPMC, CP 38, 8 Rue Buffon, 75231 Paris cedex 05 France

    • Denis Geraads
  13. Chaire Internationale de Paléoanthropologie, Collège de France, Paris, France

    • Jean-Jacques Hublin

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Contributions

Thermoluminescence dating was carried out by D.R.; ESR dating was done by R.G. and R.J.-B.; zooarchaeology and taphonomy was carried out by F.A., T.E.S. and D.G.; lithics analysis was done by S.P.M.; raw material analysis was carried out by P.F. and J.P.R.; geology was done by J.-P.R., P.F. and M.R.; and A.B.-N., J.-J.H. and S.P.M. excavated the site. D.R. and S.P.M. wrote the paper with contributions from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shannon P. McPherron.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks R. G. Klein, R. G. Roberts and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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