Most people don’t spend their free time imagining what it would be like to get on the subway and sit across from a 300,000-year-old person. But anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin isn’t most people.
In June, Hublin published two papers in the highly-respected journal Nature suggesting that the first Homo sapiens — that is, the first members of our species — lived 100,000 years earlier than previously thought in a place that no one would have expected. They also had faces that looked surprisingly like ours.
“I’m not sure these people would stand out from a crowd today,” said Hublin on a call with reporters shortly before his research was published.
Hublin’s findings, while controversial, were generally greeted by other researchers in the community with excitement about the other kinds of research opportunities that could be opened up by this new idea.
“It really sets the world alight in terms of the possibilities for understanding the evolution of Homo sapiens,” Sonia Zakrzewski, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton, told Business Insider in June. “It certainly means that we need to rethink our models.”
Hublin is one of several anthropologists and archaeologists who are combing the planet for evidence that could rewrite various aspects of ancient human history. Together, they are answering burning questions about our origin story, from when and where the first Homo sapiens emerged to how the first people braved the icy passage between what is today Siberia and North America — and when they did it.
“It definitely challenges what most people learned in high school,” Mikkel Winther Pedersen, a geogeneticist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the lead author on a paper that suggested that the first Americans arrived via a previously unidentified inland route rather than the widely-known Bering land bridge, told Business Insider of his findings in 2016.
Here’s a look at some of the most captivating findings from the last year.
The first Homo sapiens lived 300,000 years ago
In 1961, a crew of miners was ploughing into a dense wall of limestone in a hilly region west of Marrakesh when they struck a soft patch. Further digging gave way to a nearly-complete skull. As word about the discovery spread, researchers flocked to the area and uncovered more remains, including several pieces of jaw bone and a fragment of an arm. At the time, scientists pegged the fossils as roughly 40,000 years old.
Almost half a century later, Hublin and his team from the Max Planck Institute decided to dig deeper — literally. By excavating the soil beneath the initial discovery, they found remains that appeared to belong to at least five individuals with skeletons that closely resembled those of modern humans. They also found a set of flint blades which showed signs of having been burned, perhaps by a cooking fire.
Using a dating technique that measures how much radiation had built up in the flint since it was heated, Hublin and his team concluded that the bones belonged to people who lived roughly 300,000 to 350,000 years ago — or 100,000 years earlier than the first Homo sapiens were thought to emerge. Their location also suggested that our species emerged outside of sub-Saharan Africa, which was previously assumed to be a sort of “Garden of Eden” origin place for Homo sapiens.
Ancient humans didn’t trek into the Americas via the route you learned in high school …
Remember back in high school when you learned all those human-history basics, like the fact that we share a common ancestor with the African ape or that the first Americans reached the continent by way of a grassy strip of terrain called the Bering land bridge that emerged as the ice retreated between Russia and Alaska?
Turns out that last bit might be wrong.
According to a study, published in August 2016 in the journal Nature, the first people to reach the Americas most likely never even saw this route.
By analysing ancient ice cores from lakes between North America and Siberia, a team of researchers was able to determine that our ancestors couldn’t have taken that route because it was too barren, meaning they had to voyage further inland to get there instead.
The finding means archaeologists and anthropologists may have an entirely new area of terrain to explore further.
… and those first Americans showed up 100,000 years earlier than we thought
For decades, it’s been generally accepted that the first humans to trek into the Americas — the ones who perhaps did not take the Bering strait — arrived about 25,000 years ago. But a set of recent evidence suggested that timeline could be 100,000 years off. In April, archaeologists working in San Diego, California uncovered a set of 130,000-year old mastodon bones (dated using uranium) that showed signs of having been processed by humans, placing them in the Americas at that time.
Instead of showing the typical patterns of decay that bones exhibit over time, many of the fragments appeared to have been fractured shortly after the animal died, signalling that something other than natural processes were at work.
At the same site, the archaeologists also found what they believe were bones that had been fashioned into hammer-stones and anvils — two types of tools that early humans used in Africa as early as 1.7 million years ago.
Together, all of this data painted a picture that Richard Fullagar, an archaeologist at Australia’s University of Wollongong and the lead author on the study, called “incontrovertible” evidence that humans were around at this time.
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