The Oldest Human Fossils

The Significance of Nine Early Homo Sapiens Sites

Human Evolution
Conceptual image showing four stages of human evolution; Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens. Science Picture Co / Getty Images

Our species, called variously Homo sapiens, Early Modern Human (EMH), Anatomically Modern Human (AMH), and Recent Modern Human (RMH), evolved from earlier hominin species such as Australopithecus and Homo erectus.

There are several features which scholars agree are common to Homo sapiens as opposed to Neanderthals or other contemporaneous and older hominins. They include a globular braincase, brow ridges that are divided into central and side portions, a protruding chin on the middle of our lower jaw, and a narrow pelvis. Our faces are short and flat compared to our cousins, and our facial features are positioned below the forepart of our brains.

The earliest known members of the species Homo sapiens appeared in Africa during the late Middle Pleistocene, and researchers believe that we evolved in a tropical region of sub-Saharan Africa more than 300,000 years ago. We then migrated out of Africa beginning about 100,000 years ago, where we met Neanderthals and Denisovans and mated with them, bringing some of their genes into our own species before the others disappeared from the planet. Below are descriptions of each of the earliest Homo sapiens fossils discovered, along with their significance.

01
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Jebel Irhoud, Morocco (315,000 Years Ago)

Jebel Irhoud (Morocco)
View looking south of the Jebel Irhoud (Morocco) site. The remaining deposits and several people excavating them are visible in the center. At the time the site was occupied by early hominins, it would have been a cave, but the covering rock and much sediment were removed by work at the site in the 1960s. Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig

The oldest securely-dated example of a fossil Homo sapiens is from the site of Jebel Irhoud, discovered during a mining operation in 1960 in the Jebel Irhoud massif southeast of Safi, Morocco. The site was excavated in the 1960s, and again in the 21st century. There, researchers found abundant animal bones and stone tools exhibiting the Levallois stone tool technology, a tool-making method thought to have been invented by Homo sapiens.

Human fossils found at Jebel Irhoud included partial skeletons of at least five individuals, including three adults, one adolescent, and a child of about 7.5 years old. Those bones included an almost complete skull and a separate braincase, belonging to adults, as well as a mandible, a humerus shaft, an ilium and other fragments belonging to sub-adults. The face of these individuals looks familiar, but the braincase is smaller and more elongated than later Homo sapiens.

The significance of the Jebel Irhoud fossils is the evidence that Homo sapiens facial morphology was established early on, and evolutionary changes over the next millennia were concentrated in the shape and size of the braincase.

02
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Florisbad, South Africa (259,000 Years Ago)

Cast of cranium recovered from Florisbad, South Africa
Cast of Florisbad cranium, David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Ryan Somma

Florisbad, also known as the Florisbad Spring Site, is in the central part of the Free State Province in South Africa. It has produced Middle Stone Age artifacts and a partial cranium and tooth of a late archaic modern human dated to 259,000 years ago. Florisbad is sometimes categorized as Homo helmei or Homo heidelbergensis, but is considered by many palentologists to be Homo sapiens.

The human fossils were discovered in 1912 and described by pioneer paleontologist Robert Broom in 1913. The first excavations were conducted at Florisbad in the 1920s, with additional investigations in the 1950s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. During the Middle Pleistocene, the Florisbad site was located next to a large lake. Animal bones recovered at Florisbad include extinct forms of zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, springbok, hippo, antelope, otter, and flamingo. Scientists interpret the site as having been inhabited for a short period by a hunter-gatherer group of Homo sapiens who made stone tools to butcher specific prey animals.

Evolutionary biologist Carina Schlebusch and colleagues compared DNA from ancient human remains in the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa and found evidence to support the deep-time dating of Florisbad, suggesting that modern humans emerged more than 300,000 years ago.

Modern-day environment of the Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Two Suri women carry children in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. Piper Mackay / Getty Images

Omo Kibish is one of several sites found within the ancient rock formation called Kibish, itself along the Lower Omo River at the base of the Nkalabong Range in southern Ethiopia. Omo was discovered at the KHS site during Richard Leakey's excavations in 1967, by Ethiopian paleontologist Kamoya Kimeu. Remains from the fossil called Omo Kibish 1 found during Leakey's investigations included the skull, several pieces of upper limbs and shoulder bones, several bones of the right hand, the lower end of the right leg, a bit of the pelvis, fragments of both lower legs and the right foot and some rib and vertebrae fragments.

Investigations at the site between 2001 and 2003 found additional pieces of the same individual, including more of the pelvis and conjoining pieces of the femora. Those new pieces showed that Omo Kibish 1 was a female who died as a young to middle-aged adult. There is some evidence that she gave birth before her death. Researchers estimate her living weight as about 160 pounds (74 kilograms) and she was between 5 1/2 and 6 feet tall (171–184 centimeters).

Those measurements are estimates because her legs were shorter than researchers expected based on the first findings. There is no reason to expect this is a second individual, say the scholars, because no duplicate bones were found, and they all were recovered from the same strata.

04
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Misliya Cave, Israel (180,000 Years Ago)

Reconstructed Mislaya Maxilla
Reconstructed maxilla based on microCT images from the Misliya hominin. Gerhard Weber, University of Vienna, Austria

Misliya Cave is located on the western slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel, near what must have been a crucial crossroads out of Africa and into Eurasia. The rock shelter is a collapsed part of a complex of prehistoric cave sites along the western slopes of Mount Carmel south of Haifa.

Discovered by Swedish paleontologist Fritz Brotzen in 1925, Misliya was not fully excavated until the late 20th century. The Middle Paleolithic complex contains about 80,000 stone artifacts made using full-fledged Levallois technology, abundant animal bones and bone fragments, and a well-defined hearth. Human remains were discovered during excavations held between 2001 and 2011.

Misliya is currently the oldest Homo sapiens site found outside of Africa. Elements of an adult hominid recovered from the site include a partial jaw, some of the bone surrounding the tooth sockets, part of the cheekbone, the roof of the mouth, the bottom of the nasal cavity, and the complete upper left dentition.

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Herto, Ethiopia (160,000 Years Ago)

Zebu in the Awash Park, Afar, Ethiopia
Zebu resting in the Awash Park of Afar, Ethiopia. Jean Rebiffé

Ethiopia's Afar depression contains numerous important paleontological sites, including the Herto site. Herto contains Early Middle Stone Age tools, and animal and human remains. Artifacts and stratigraphically-associated animal fossils include extinct buffalo, hippo, horse, rats, antelopes, and wildebeests. Stone artifacts include a range of Levallois technique objects such as handaxes, cores, flakes, and blades. At the time of the Middle Paleolithic occupation, the animals and humans lived at the margin of a freshwater lake.

Three Homo sapiens crania have been found at Herto, including the intact right side of an adult male, a juvenile skull, and a second adult male represented mostly by vault fragments.

Herto contains the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens mortuary practices. All three skulls show evidence of having been modified as part of a mortuary practice: they are incised with parallel lines, and broken edges have been smoothed and polished.

06
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Daoxian and Liujiang, Southern China (65,000-120,000 Years Ago)

Giant tapir (Megatapirus augustus)
This giant tapir skull is similar to those found in association with early Homo sapiens sites in China. Ryan Somma

The earliest Homo sapiens sites in China may predate those in the Levant and Europe. Prior to their discovery, the earliest Homo sapiens sites east of the Arabian peninsula were Tianyuan Cave in northern China, Niah Cave in Borneo, and Lake Mungo in Australia, none of which is older than 50,000 years. Daoxian and Luijiang have yet to be fully published in the English language, but important summaries have been recently released.

Daoxian is a hominid found in the Middle Paleolithic levels of the Fuyan Cave, located in Tangbei village of Daoxian province. The cave is part of a large pipeline-type karst system with an abundant fossil mammal assemblage. Extinct mammals represented in the collections include bear, hyena, stegodon, giant tapir, and pig. There are no stone tools in the collections, but there were 47 clearly human teeth with measurements falling consistently within the Homo sapiens range, found during systematic excavations between 2011 and 2013. Dates associated with the human teeth range between 80,000 and 120,000 years old.

The Luijiang hominid site is from Tongtianyan Cave, a labyrinthine cave system located in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The skeleton was discovered in 1958 by farmers who were excavating the cave deposits for fertilizer. Pioneering Chinese geologist Youheng Li and the father of Chinese archeology Pei Wen-Zhong visited the site shortly after its discovery. A nearly complete human skull and several post-cranial fragments were recovered from the site in the same levels as typical Late Pleistocene fauna such as orangutan, rhinoceros, bear, stegodon, giant tapir, and pig. Dates for Luijiang range from 68,000 to 153,000 years ago.

There are other sites in China which may represent early Homo sapiens occupations, and if so, it is possible that the earliest out of Africa migration was along the Southern Dispersal Route, and that successful Homo sapiens entrance into Europe and Eurasia was blocked by existing Neanderthal occupations.

Homo sapiens grave from Qafzeh
Grave of a Middle Paleolithic woman from Qafzeh Cave Musée National de Préhistoire, in Dordogne, France. Wolfgang Sauber

The Qafzeh rock shelter holds some of the earliest deliberate burials assigned to Homo sapiens as well as some of the earliest evidence of personal ornaments. The site is located in the Yizrael valley of the Lower Galilee region of Israel and was excavated first in the 1930s, and then again between 1967 and 1979. The terrace in front of the cave opening was found to have exclusively Middle Paleolithic sites, representing at least 24 occupation horizons covering a period of about 10,000 years. 

Seven adult Homo sapiens, 10 juveniles and a few unaffiliated bones and teeth were found in the Middle Paleolithic layers and are interpreted as purposeful burials. Levallois stone tools, hearth remains and small mammal bones were found within the site. The site also included perforated mollusks with deliberately added ochre stains, thought to represent personal ornamentation, one of the hallmarks of modern human behaviors. One of the Levallois cores had parallel incisions cut deeply into the stone tool. 

08
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Skhul Cave, Israel (90,000 Years Ago)

Entrance to Skhul Cave, Israel
The Middle Paleolithic Site of Skuhl Cave, Israel. Hanay

Mugharet Es Skuhl or Cave of the Kids (that is, juvenile goats) is a rock shelter on the west side of Mount Carmel south of Haifa, Israel. It was completely excavated in 1932 under the direction of British archaeologist ​Dorothy Garrod and her student Theodore McCown. McCown's excavations took the site occupations right down to bedrock, and all modern studies since that time have been completed on the curated artifacts, located in several museums throughout the world.

Like Qafzeh Cave, Skhul's main claim to fame is what appears to have been deliberate human burials. Nine nearly complete hominid remains were recovered, and between four and seven of them are thought to have been interments. Stone tools from the site are classic Levallois, with a large number of retouched and leaf-shaped projectile points, as well as a few handaxes.

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