No Bones About It: The Oldest Human Fossils
Humans have long tried to solve the mystery of our origins. While some have explored the answers via religious teachings or complex theories with varying degrees of success, hard evidence found by archaeologists is undeniably one of the best ways to understand our ancestors and how we came to be.
It’s a consensus that the earliest humans came from Africa. As such, there’s an abundance of fossils on the continent. Many a man has gone on a quest to find the elusive “missing link”, the definite point where modern humans separated from early apes. However, none has been found.
As we keep discovering more fossils and developing better ways to date them, there’s a wealth of information that, every now and then, shakes the archaeological world.
Located in Western Morocco, Jebel Irhoud is an archaeological site that was discovered in the ‘60s. The human remains and stone tools found there indicated that the people living there were most likely Neanderthals. However, after recent appraisal, many believe that these remains might have been from an archaic form of Homo sapiens.
New dating carried out by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology shows the fossils are a lot older than previously thought. These findings conclude that the fossils are likely to be the oldest Homo sapiens ever found, dating back some 315,000 years.
The “cradle of mankind” — the region where human life began — is usually associated with eastern and southern Africa. Since the discovery of these new fossils, scientists are now reassessing the theories to include Northern Africa and other regions.
In 1974, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson found one of the most famous fossils in history, a female Australopithecus that was kindly named Lucy. Lucy got her name because Johanson was listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles during the excavation.
Found in Ethiopia, the hundreds of intact bone fossils represented 40 percent of the skeleton. The fossils were believed to be just less than 3.18 million years old.
In 1975, a joint French-Brazilian expedition lead by Annette Laming-Emperaire found what is thought to be the oldest Homo sapiens fossil in the Americas. Inspired by Lucy, the fossil was nicknamed Luzia by biologist Walter Alves Neves.
Luzia was 11,500 years old, which was roughly 2,000 years older than other American human fossils. Unlike other fossils, which had Mongoloid features associated with North Asian people, Luzia had Negroid features. This meant Luzia came during one of the first migratory waves from Southeast Asia and Africa. Thus, indicating that humans arrived in the Americas than scientists originally thought.
Peking Man Fossils
Zhoukoudian is an archaeological site discovered in 1921 by Swedish Johan Gunnar Andersson. The cave system was in a district of Beijing, which was called Peking at the time.
At this site, archaeologists unearthed the largest collection of human fossils. Later called the Peking Man fossils, these remains belonged to 40 individuals dating all the way back to 770,000 years ago.
The fossils were first thought to be a new species, Sinanthropus pekinensis. However, it was later established to be one of the first specimens of Homo erectus.
Located in the Mount Carmel mountain range, Misliya is a collapsed cave. Moreover, the site is important because it contains the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils outside of Africa. In fact, these fossils date back some 200,000 years ago.
For a long time, scientists believed that modern humans left Africa around 100,000 years ago. But, this new discovery shows they left a lot earlier. The findings also suggest that Homo sapiens may have encountered other human ancestors such as the Neanderthals in the Mediterranean region.
Located in Nariokotome, Kenya, the Turkana Boy was the most complete skeleton of an early human found by archaeologists. The fossil belonged to a young male of around 10 years old and dated back to roughly 1.5 million years ago.
Because of the great condition of the 108 bones, scientists managed to draw many conclusions about Homo erectus. The boy was relatively tall, could walk upright, and had the ability to climb trees. Plus, scientists believed that he had vocal capabilities due to the presence of the Broca’s area of the brain.
In 1891, Eugène Dubois found a selection of fossils near the banks of the Solo River in Trinil, Java. Dubois named the species Anthropopithecus erectus.
Recklessly, Dubois claimed that the “Java Man” was the missing link between apes and humans. This statement caused a lot of controversy in the archaeological world.
While many people didn’t accept Dubois’ claims, they still couldn’t decide whether the fossil was an ape or an early human. Eventually, several similarities were found between the Java Man and the Peking Man. Therefore, scientists concluded the fossil was a Homo erectus.
The Java Man was estimated to be nearly 1,000,000 years old. At the time, the fossil was the oldest hominin ever found.
Stretching over 48 kilometers, Olduvai Gorge is in the eastern Serengeti Plains in Tanzania. It’s arguably one of the world’s most important sites as it contains remains of the Homo habilis. Homo habilis is most likely the first species of the early humans, who probably lived in the region around 1.9 million years ago.
The site is extremely relevant to the field of archaeology. Without the site, archaeologists would never have found evidence of the development of early humans. In particular, the production of stone tools and societal complexities, such as communal living, hunting, and scavenging.
In 1991, archaeologist David Lordkipanidze found prehistoric human remains in Dmanisi, a Georgian archaeological site located 93 kilometers southwest of the capital Tbilisi. The fossils were 1.8 million years old. For a long time, they were believed to be the oldest evidence of hominin outside of Africa.
These specimens are thought to be a subspecies of Homo erectus and the earliest known human presence in the Caucasus. Because they had advanced lower limbs but primitive skulls, some scientists suggest they represent a point between the transition from Australopithecus to Homo erectus.