Hundreds of thousands of years ago, around 62 miles west of what would eventually become Marrakesh, a group of people lived in a cave overlooking a lush Moroccan landscape. They rested there, building fires to keep themselves warm. They hunted there, sharpening stone tools to bring down animals. And they died there, leaving their bones behind in the dirt. At the time, there would have been nothing particularly notable about these cave-dwellers. They were yet more Homo sapiens, members of a nascent ape species that had spread across Africa. But in their death, they have become singularly important.
That cave is now called Jebel Irhoud, and bones of its former occupants have been recently unearthed by an international team of scientists. They mark the earliest fossilized remains of Homo sapiens ever found. Until now, that honor belonged to two Ethiopian fossils that are 160,000 and 195,000 years old respectively. But the Jebel Irhoud bones, and the stone tools that were uncovered with them, are far older—around 315,000 years old, with a possible range of 280,000 to 350,000 years.
It’s not just when these people died that matters, but where. Their presence in north Africa complicates what was once a tidy picture of humanity arising in the east of the continent. “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,” says Philipp Gunz from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who was involved in the new excavation. “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.”