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First ancestors Excavation at Jebel Irhoud, Morrocco, has unearthed 300,000-year­ old fossilised remains of Homo sapiens, pushing back the origin of our species by about 100,000 years.

The team, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) and the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage (Morocco), discovered skull, teeth, and long bones from at least five individuals. The teeth and facial bones are almost indistinguishable from those of modern-day humans, but the braincase appears to be more elongated and archaic. Team member Philipp Gunz told CWA: 'Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the H. sapiens lineage, probably as a result of a series of genetic mutations.'

Until now, the earliest known examples of H. sapiens fossil bones were a set found at Omo Kibish, Ethiopia, dating back 195,000 years.

ABOVE View of the Jebellrhoud site in Morocco, looking south. When occupied by early hominins it was cave, but the covering rock and much sediment were removed in the 1960s. ABOVE LEFT An almost complete adult mandible discovered at Jebellrhoud. The bone morphology and the dentition display a mosaic of archaic and evolved features, clearly assigning it to the root of our own lineage.

This new evidence challenges the theory that we are all descended from a single group of early H. sapiens in east Africa 200,000 years ago, and instead suggests a more intricate evolutionary history that may have involved the greater African continent. 'We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200,000 years ago in east Africa, but our new data reveal that H. sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago. Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of H. sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa,' Jean-Jacques Hublin, who led the expedition, told CWA.

HOMEGROWN EUROPEANS Our oldest pre-human ancestor lived in Europe rather than in Africa, according new research by an international research team led by Madelaine Bohme (University ofTilbingen) and Nikolai Spassov (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences).

Fossilised remains of Graecopithecus freybergi, found in the Balkans, belong to the earliest known hominid, and date to between about 7.175m and 7.24m years ago. Computer tomography used to examine a lower jaw from Greece and an upper premolar from Bulgaria revealed dental root features that are characteristic of humans. It was previously thought that the first pre-humans developed in Africa several hundred thousand years later.

Climate changes may have driven the evolution of pre-humans, as environmental conditions in Europe became more favourable at the same time as desertification increased in Africa and probably also in Arabia. Researchers believe these conditions may have played a central role in the splitting of the human and chimpanzee lineages in the eastern Mediterranean.

FAR LEFT The lower jaw of the 7.175 millionyear-old Graecopithecus freybergi, a human ancestor, from Greece. LEFT The upper premolar of the Graecopithecus freybergi found in Bulgaria.

Mycenaean tomb reveals its secrets Archaeologists have uncovered Mycenaean grave goods and the remains of 15 adults with two juveniles while excavating at Kastrouli in Greece this summer. The site is located near the famous Classical Period sanctuary at Delphi.

The Late Bronze Age tomb was looted in antiquity, but the robbers failed to locate the main burial area of the tomb. The team, led by Thomas E Levy of the University of California San Diego in a joint expedition with loannis Liritizis of the University of the Aegean, Rhodes, found a comingled grave with the disarticulated remains of the human burials, along with grave goods that included

ABOVE Entrance to the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean tomb at Kastrouli, Greece. INSET This late Mycenaean Psi-figurine was found with human remains in the tomb.

Mycenaean pottery vessels (stirrup-jars), spindle whorls, and gold foil.

The date of the tomb, around 1200 BC, coincides with the period that saw the sudden collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation, along with those of both the Hittites and Egyptians. The reasons for this abrupt decline are poorly understood. However, the finds from Kastrouli reveal that the settlement here supported a complex social hierarchy. Levy told CWA: 'There were obviously high-ranking people living at the site right before the collapse. The discovery of imported ceramic vessels and especially gold foit which probably adorned garments worn by Kastrouli elites, suggests that this small Mycenaean site played a more complex economic role in this region than previously assumed.'


Issue 84

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