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

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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Figure 1: Excavation site and hominin fossils.
Figure 2: South view of the profile (in m) showing the main stratigraphic units of our excavations correlated with the previous stratigraphic profile.
Figure 3: Flint artefacts from layers 6 and 7.

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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.)

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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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shannon P. McPherron.

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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.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 View south of the remaining sediments at the start of excavations in 2004.

The approximate area of the main fossil concentration (not actually visible in this initial photograph taken before our excavations) is circled in red and detailed in Fig. 1b, c. The stacked rocks around the base of the sediments and ramping up to the sediments on the left were placed there for protection of the remaining deposits. The white tags mark dosimeter locations. The scale is correct for the section with the tags.

Extended Data Figure 2 Non-polarized light photomicrographs from thin-sections.

a, Layer 4, thin-section 608M, showing the good preservation of the sediment owing to overlying cave lithoclasts. b, Layer 4, thin-section 608M, clasts are oriented with unit dip. c, Layer 7 upper part, thin-section 712T, indicating a run-off deposit. d, Layer 7, thin-section 609T, bone micro-fragments in an isotropic fabric microfacies. e, Lower part of layer 7, thin-section 716, with a high density of micro-charcoal, soil aggregates, bone fragments and heated lithoclasts. f, Trampled surface in layer 7, thin-section 712B (thin sections by M. El Graoui). Photos by M.R.

Extended Data Figure 3 Cross-polarized and plane-polarized photomicrographs from thin-section of micromorphology sample 717 (layer 7).

a, Scanned thin section. Squares with letters in a refer to the areas in be, each area provided as plane- (PPL) and cross-polarized (XPL) images. Scale bar, 0.5 mm. Bio indicates bioturbation and the numbers refer to the sub-units as indicated by dotted lines. ST refers to structure. b, Black coatings against a biogallery wall. c, Micro-bedded carbon products preserved under a schisteous clast. d, Carbon aggregates that coat the bottom of ST1. e, bed of carbon micro-particles in the filling of ST1. Photos by M.R.

Extended Data Figure 4 Flint artefacts.

a, b, e, Unifacial points (layer 6). c, d, Convergent scrapers (layer 6). f, Déjeté scraper (layer 6). g, h, Convergent scrapers (layer 7). i, Unifacial point (layer 7). j, Levallois Flake (layer 7). k, m, Double scrapers (layer 7). l, Déjeté scraper (layer 7). n, Single scraper (layer 7).

Extended Data Figure 5 Stone artefacts from layer 7.

a, b, Quartz flakes. c, m, Flint Levallois flakes. d, i, Silicified limestone flakes. e, g, h, Flint flakes with some edge damage. f, Flint flake. j, n, Silicified limestone flakes with some edge damage. k, l, Flint Levallois flakes with some edge damage.

Extended Data Figure 6 Stone artefacts from layer 7.

a, c, Single scrapers. b, Double scraper with some edge damage. d, Notch on silicified limestone. e, Single scraper with some edge damage on a Levallois flake. f, Convergent denticulate (Tayac Point). g, Double scraper. h, Déjeté scraper. i, Unifacial point. All artefacts are flint unless noted otherwise.

Extended Data Figure 7 Dose–response curves of the exponentially fitted thermoluminescence temperature integrals, where the regeneration dose–response curves were shifted along the dose axis to obtain the palaeodoses.

The similarity (homothety) of the dose–response curves is given by the ratios of the thermoluminescence integrals of the additive and shifted regeneration dose–response curves at the additive dose points. The inset depicts the glow curves and the heating plateau for 300–600 Gy additive β-irradiations.

Extended Data Figure 8 Estimation and fitting of non-oriented CO2- radicals (ESR).

Extended Data Table 1 Lithic data
Extended Data Table 2 Dosimetric and thermoluminescence data
Extended Data Table 3 ESR age calculation

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Richter, D., Grün, R., Joannes-Boyau, R. et al. The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age. Nature 546, 293–296 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature22335

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