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The fossil remains of five individuals who lived about 315,000 years ago in North Africa could belong to the very first population of modern humans, or they might be just another relative of ours who died out. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the latest controversial claim in the hunt for the first humans.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The big prize in the world of human origins is finding the first Homo sapiens, our own species. It's generally thought that we evolved in East Africa probably about 200,000 years ago. Now a European and Moroccan team says, no, it was Morocco 315,000 years ago. Jean-Jacques Hublin is with Germany's Max Planck Institute. He led the team that found the skull bones and stone tools.
JEAN-JACQUES HUBLIN: These material represent the very root of our species, the oldest Homo sapiens ever found in Africa or elsewhere.
JOYCE: This pushes back the date of the first anatomically modern humans by over a hundred thousand years, a big claim which Hublin made in the journal Nature. Others disagree, among them Rick Potts, who runs the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He says some of the skull's features, especially its elongated cranium, suggest it could be a more primitive ancestor of modern humans.
RICK POTTS: The new finds from Morocco are kind of a snapshot in that whole process of transition from archaic to us.
JOYCE: A snapshot taken, he says, probably just before modern humans evolved. This is a common argument in anthropology. Where does a newly discovered fossil fit in the bushy family tree of human ancestry? Chris Stringer, an anthropologist at London's Museum of Natural History, says even if the Moroccan skull is a mash-up of modern and archaic features, it's still one of us.
CHRIS STRINGER: As evolution happens, as we go back in time, they kind of look less like modern humans. They have faces which are really like bigger versions of our faces.
JOYCE: What is clear is that forms of early humans were popping up all over Africa. They evolved in East Africa, Southern Africa and now apparently North Africa. And it's increasingly evident that early humans and their ancestors moved all over the continent, swapping tool technology as well as genes until eventually the final version evolved somewhere yet to be determined. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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