This May Be the Oldest Homo Sapiens Ever Found, In a Surprising Place

Researchers may have discovered the oldest homo sapiens yet, in Morocco.

Face and jaw reconstructed
Reconstruction of Jebel Irhoud face and jaw (MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR EVOLUTIONARY ANTHROPOLOGY)

Until this, what we'd thought was that humans first appeared in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. But now, researchers have reported in the June 7 issue of Nature that they've discovered homo sapiens fossils that are much older—over 100,000 years older—and in a surprising place: Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. Taken together, it may be time to rewrite the earliest chapters of human history. Homo sapiens may have not have emerged fully formed from a single area of East Africa. Jebel Irhoud is clear across the continent from Omo Kibish, Ethiopia, the site previously assumed to be the “cradle of humankind."


Source: Google maps

Jean-Jacques Hublin, an author of the study and a director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, first became aware of the site near the Atlantic coast of Morocco in the early 1980s. A nearly complete skull had been uncovered in 1961, and what Hublin was first shown was a human lower jawbone that just made no sense. Since then a brain case and tools indicating human habitation have been found at the site. The fossils didn't fit with the belief that early humans emerged from a “'Garden of Eden' that was located most likely in sub-Saharan Africa," as Hublin put it to Nature.


Omo Kibish (JOHN FLEAGLE)

The fossils “looked far too primitive to be anything understandable, so people came up with some weird ideas," guessing they were likely from Neanderthals living in North Africa 40,000 years ago.

It wasn't until the late 2000s, when a team led by archaeological scientist Daniel Richter and archaeologist Shannon McPherron uncovered more tools and 20 new bones from at least five individuals, including a surprisingly complete jaw, that the site and remains were dated to between 280,000 and 350,000 years of age.


Jebel Irhoud (SHANNON MCPHERRON/MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR EVOLUTIONARY ANTHROPOLOGY)

Hublin's convinced these individuals were homo sapiens, saying, “It's a face you could cross in the street today," in spite of the fact that teeth are larger than ours and the skulls are elongated by our standards. He finds them a closer facial match to homo sapiens than Neanderthals, homo erectus, or any other archaic hominins.

Composite reconstruction of Jebel Irhoud skull (PHILIPP GUNZ/MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR EVOLUTIONARY ANTHROPOLOGY)

That elongation is, to Hublin, a sign that homo sapiens' faces developed before their brains had evolved into their current structure. He believes that a range of humans evolved separately across multiple African sites, saying, “What we think is, before 300,000 years ago, there was a dispersal of our species—or at least the most primitive version of our species—throughout Africa." He notes that around this time, much of Africa was savannah and supported similar wildlife that would have enabled relatively painless migrations from place to place.

Other recent research fits Hublin's proposed timing. Mattias Jakobsson at Uppsala University in Sweden sequenced the genome of a South African boy who lived at Ballito Bay roughly 2,000 years ago and found his lineage split off from other homo sapiens groups over 260,000 years ago.

Not all experts are in agreement with Hublin's conclusions. Speaking to Nature, anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is concerned that too many different-looking fossils may have been lumped together, making the truth hard to sort out. Alison Brooks of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C, tells Science that the individuals from Jebel Irhoud could just be “highly evolved H. heidelbergensis," though they do look like us. Richard Klein of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California agrees: “The main skull looks like something that could be near the root of the H. sapiens lineage." He says he'd consider them “protomodern, not modern."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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