Adding to a recent string of discoveries that are rewriting the narrative of human evolution, fossils of a number of ancient human individuals that were unearthed in Morocco have been dated to more than 300,000 years ago. this find pushes evidence for the age of Homo sapiens back by roughly 100,000 years, and also shows that our ancient ancestors were much better traveled than previously assumed.

The fossils in question were excavated from the Jebel Irhoud cave, located 62 miles west of modern-day Marrakesh, and included the remains of five individuals, along with flint tools and the remains of their campfires. The skulls of the individuals bore faces that were unmistakably that of modern humans; although despite having a brain of similar size to other H. sapiens, the cranium was somewhat flattened and elongated towards the rear, unlike the more spherical braincase we see today.

The researchers were surprised to find that the group’s tools dated to between 280,00 to 350,000 years ago — roughly one-third older than modern humans were assumed to be. The previously oldest known remains were 200,000 years old, and found in Ethiopia, prompting the scientific community to assume that the area they were found in was the origin of humanity. But aside from being separated by 1,000 centuries, the remains found in Morocco and Ethiopia are on opposite sides of the African continent: with the far older remains being found 5,600 kilometers (3,500 miles) away from the previously-assumed eldest fossils, this raises the question of where modern humans actually originated from.

"What people, including myself, used to think was that there was a cradle of humankind in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, and all modern humans descend from that population," explains Philipp Gunz, with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "The new finds indicate that Homo sapiens is much older and had already spread across all of Africa by 300,000 years ago. They really show that the African story of our species was more complex than what we used to think." 

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