Letter

New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens

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Abstract

Fossil evidence points to an African origin of Homo sapiens from a group called either H. heidelbergensis or H. rhodesiensis. However, the exact place and time of emergence of H. sapiens remain obscure because the fossil record is scarce and the chronological age of many key specimens remains uncertain. In particular, it is unclear whether the present day ‘modern’ morphology rapidly emerged approximately 200 thousand years ago (ka) among earlier representatives of H. sapiens1 or evolved gradually over the last 400 thousand years2. Here we report newly discovered human fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and interpret the affinities of the hominins from this site with other archaic and recent human groups. We identified a mosaic of features including facial, mandibular and dental morphology that aligns the Jebel Irhoud material with early or recent anatomically modern humans and more primitive neurocranial and endocranial morphology. In combination with an age of 315 ± 34 thousand years (as determined by thermoluminescence dating)3, this evidence makes Jebel Irhoud the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the H. sapiens clade in which key features of modern morphology were established. Furthermore, it shows that the evolutionary processes behind the emergence of H. sapiens involved the whole African continent.

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Acknowledgements

The research program at Jebel Irhoud 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. We are grateful to the many curators and colleagues who, over the years, gave us access to recent and fossil hominin specimens for computed tomography scanning or analysis, to E. Trinkaus for providing comparative data and to C. Kiarie, M. Lui, C. Piot, D. Plotzki, A. Buchenau and H. Temming for their technical assistance.

Author information

Affiliations

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

    • Jean-Jacques Hublin
    • , Sarah E. Freidline
    • , Simon Neubauer
    • , Inga Bergmann
    • , Adeline Le Cabec
    •  & Philipp Gunz
  2. Chaire Internationale de Paléoanthropologie, Collège de France, Paris, France

    • Jean-Jacques Hublin
  3. Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine, Rabat, Morocco

    • Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer
  4. Department of Anthropology, Center for the Study of Human Origins, New York University, New York, New York 10003, USA

    • Shara E. Bailey
  5. School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NR, UK

    • Matthew M. Skinner
  6. Department of Cultural Heritage, University of Bologna, Ravenna 48121, Italy

    • Stefano Benazzi
  7. Paleoanthropology, Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, and DFG Center for Advanced Studies: “Words, Bones, Genes, Tools”, Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen, Germany

    • Katerina Harvati

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Contributions

The study was conceived by J.-J.H., A.B.-N. and P.G. Cranial metrical and non-metrical data were compiled and analysed by J.-J.H., A.B.-N., S.E.F., S.N., K.H. and P.G. Mandibular metrical and non-metrical data were compiled and analysed by J.-J.H. and I.B. Dental metrical and non-metrical data were compiled and analysed by S.E.B., M.M.S., A.L.C. and S.B. J.-J.H. and P.G. wrote the manuscript with contributions from all other authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jean-Jacques Hublin or Philipp Gunz.

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

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