Fossils of early humans have been found in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and suggest Homo sapiens arose at least 100,000 years earlier than was previously thought.
The fossils also suggest that rather than having a single point of origin, Homo sapiens emerged across the breadth of Africa.
No 'Garden of Eden'
Prof. Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said that the discovery was a game changer, and it fundamentally altered our understanding of the origins of humanity as species.
"It is not the story of it happening in a rapid way in a 'Garden of Eden' somewhere in Africa," Hublin told BBC. "Our view is that it was a more gradual development and it involved the whole continent. So if there was a Garden of Eden, it was all of Africa."
The mainstream view of mankind's origin is that Homo sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago and was a sudden divergence from our more primitive ancestors. Hublin's discovery shatters this view and suggests a more gradual process for the origins of modern humanity.
Hublin's discovery also undermines the commonly held theory that there was a single cradle from which modern man emerged before spreading across Africa and the world. Rather, Hublin's research suggests that modern man emerged all over Africa.
In the 1960s, researchers discovered a series of fossils in Jebel Irhoud that were roughly 40,000 years old and were believed to be from Neanderthals. Hublin's discovery — which includes skulls, teeth, and bones — casts doubt on that decades-old theory. The fossils discovered by Hublin's team are 300,000 to 350,000 years old, making them at least 100,000 years older than the previously discovered fossils. More interestingly, the skulls are almost a perfect match for modern humans, though there are a few important differences between the two.
The fossils discovered have a more prominent brow line and smaller brain cavity than modern humans, but Hublin is confident that the fossils are Homo sapiens rather than some distant cousin. Supporting his theory is the fact that other discoveries from the site indicate that the people who lived there used stone tools and fire, which is in line with what we know of early Homo sapiens.
Prior to this discovery, the earliest known examples of Homo sapiens fossils were found in Ethiopia and were determined to be 195,000 years old.