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Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia

Abstract

The origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens and the fate of Neanderthals have been fundamental questions in human evolutionary studies for over a century1,2,3,4. A key barrier to the resolution of these questions has been the lack of substantial and accurately dated African hominid fossils from between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago5. Here we describe fossilized hominid crania from Herto, Middle Awash, Ethiopia, that fill this gap and provide crucial evidence on the location, timing and contextual circumstances of the emergence of Homo sapiens. Radioisotopically dated to between 160,000 and 154,000 years ago6, these new fossils predate classic Neanderthals and lack their derived features. The Herto hominids are morphologically and chronologically intermediate between archaic African fossils and later anatomically modern Late Pleistocene humans. They therefore represent the probable immediate ancestors of anatomically modern humans. Their anatomy and antiquity constitute strong evidence of modern-human emergence in Africa.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. Almquist, A. Asfaw, M. Asnake, T. Assebework, D. Brill, J. D. Clark, J. DeHeinzelin, A. Getty, Y. Haile-Selassie, B. Latimer, C. Pehlevan, K. Schick, S. Simpson, P. Snow and Y. Zeleka for fieldwork and analytical studies; J. L. Arsuaga, A. Gracia and N. Garcia for comparative metric data; C. O. Lovejoy for review; and F. Bibi, D. Brill, R. Cann, Y. Haile-Selassie, L. Hlusko, L. Jellema, R. Klein, J. Matternes and R. Paul for assistance. We thank the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, the Authority for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage, and the National Museum of Ethiopia for permissions; the Afar Regional Government and the Afar people of the Middle Awash, particularly the Bouri–Modaitu community and H. Elema; and many other individuals for contributing to our efforts. This research was supported by the NSF (US) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

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Correspondence to Tim D. White.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Table 1 (XLS 33 kb)

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Further reading

Figure 1: The Herto BOU-VP-16/1 adult cranium in lateral, frontal, three-quarter, posterior, superior and inferior views.
Figure 2: The Herto BOU-VP-16/5 child's cranium in frontal, lateral, posterior, three-quarter, superior and inferior views.
Figure 3: Univariate comparisons, by anatomical region and dimension, of BOU-VP-16/1 with Qafzeh 6, Kabwe, La Ferrassie, and modern (recent) human males.
Figure 4: a, Comparative analysis of the Herto BOU-VP-16/1 adult cranium.

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