Discovery of Oldest Human Remains Fosters Moroccan Pride
LONDON—As studies go, they don’t get much more momentous than the one published in Nature last month. Its authors describe how they discovered and analyzed what turned out to be the world’s oldest human remains in Morocco.
The research has set tongues wagging in the North African country. The Moroccan media and public have relished the story with a wave of patriotism. Usually research centering on evolution can face backlash in the Arab world, but apparently not when it’s a matter of regional pride.
The finding has changed what we know of our species’ early history, says one of the Moroccan experts involved in the study.
“Specialists believed that humans originally came from East Africa, but now North Africa has come into the debate,” says Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, an archaeologist from the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco.
Since 2004, Ben-Ncer has been darting back and forth between Rabat and the archaeological site at Jebel Irhoud to extract and then study the remains. The most important artifact, a skull, was found back in 2007, but Ben-Ncer’s caution prevented him from rushing to publish the revelation. “You have to gather sufficient amounts of data to justify the finding,” he says. “We didn’t want to hurry it and make a mistake.”
The fossilized remains of five individuals and some of their hunting tools were unearthed in a desert cave site about a two-hour drive west from Marrakech. They were found to be approximately 300,000 years old. Until this discovery, the oldest known remains were 195,000 years old.
Not only does it prove that humans haven’t originated from a so-called “cradle of mankind” somewhere close to modern-day Ethiopia, but it also opens up the possibility that we have evolved from a number of different sites throughout Africa.
Ben-Ncer and a number of collaborating scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany are now working to see if they can recover any other artifacts from the site that might tell them more about the lives of these early humans.
“It’s a really important find,” says Ignacio de la Torre, a professor of paleolithic archaeology at University College London who was not involved in the study. “They had Stone-Age tools, so it extends the range of the Stone Age both in time and geography.”
Evolutionary research in the Arab world can face opposition—so most scientists usually choose to do such work quietly with a hope to go unnoticed—but Ben-Ncer and his team have taken a different approach.
They have instead enjoyed security through notoriety. The Moroccan public has taken a keen interest, says Ben-Ncer, and instead of resisting the discovery they have embraced it with a sense of patriotism.
“Everyone is talking about it,” says Ben-Ncer. “It makes us proud to say the oldest homo sapiens were found in Morocco and so it poses no problem to study evolution in this way.”
His colleagues agree.
“They have every reason to be proud,” says Philipp Gunz, a researcher in the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute who also worked on the study. “It’s been interesting to see the local media’s reaction. The statistics show that the people Googling the most about our research are in Morocco.”
But the attention of the researchers has now progressed from the watershed moment of finding the world’s oldest human fossils and towards learning more about the five individuals themselves and the kind of lives they might have lived.
“We are going to return and hope to find some more fossils and specimens to study. Data from specimens of this age are rare, and so our objective is to develop a fuller picture,” says Ben-Ncer.
The researchers believe additional parts of the same fossilized humans are likely to be at the site, as well as other artifacts they have yet to dig up. They want to understand why those five people were found in the same spot. “There’s no evidence to suggest it’s a burial although it might be. Maybe they’re victims of an accident, but having additional remains might help to solve the mystery,” says Gunz.