Before the dawn

The finding of sophisticated stone tools and human remains in Morocco could spark a reappraisal of the history of the race

By: Editorial | Published:June 10, 2017 12:33 am

Just when researchers the world over had agreed on the origin story of the human race, remote prehistory may have to be revised. Archeological remains found in an abandoned mine at Jebel Irhoud compare very well to modern humans, and are 1 lakh years older than the oldest human fossils found in south and east Africa. In addition, the finding of flint tools knapped by the Levallois technique suggests that sophisticated tool-making was common in some parts of Africa 3,00,000 years ago. The classical picture of the early human race is based on the work of the Leakey family at Olduvai Gorge and other locations in east Africa, and starts with the famous discovery of the fossil named Lucy — only because the researchers were playing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds when her bones were freed from the rock. Finds in South Africa followed, and a clear line of descent was established from Lucy, the original archaeological Eve, to all the modern human races. In recent times, other finds were incorporated into this picture. For instance, the Neanderthals were originally believed to be more primitive than humans. But this was a misunderstanding — the first specimen studied was arthritic and could not walk erect. They are now recognised to have evolved along with humans and interbred with us. In fact, all of us have some Neanderthal DNA. The compound family tree which evolved traced our common origin to a Garden of Eden in east Africa 2,00,000 years ago, from where the many human cultures radiated out into the world.

Now, the findings at Jebel Irhoud have pushed back the dawn of humanity to 3,00,000 years ago, and far to the west of Eden. The bones of five individuals have been found, and researchers note that while they are distinctly human in aspect, the cranium is not of the human form. From this, it may be surmised that the distinctive human brain is peculiarly human, and not inherited. However, errors of dating and stratigraphic context are common in this field. So, it will take years of work yet to confirm if Jebel Irhoud indeed signals a new dawn for the human race, or a false dawn.

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