Anthropologists have long sought to pin down the exact location of the proverbial “Garden of Eden” — the region of our planet where the earliest Homo sapiens emerged.
Over the last two decades, a combination of genetic evidence and data from the fossil record have led scientists to conclude that the first members of our species evolved in eastern Africa about 200,000 years ago.
But a new discovery suggests a more complex narrative for the origin of humans.
In a pair of papers published Wednesday in Nature, an international team of researchers describes 22 human fossils from western Morocco that are about 300,000 years old.
According to the authors, it is the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens ever discovered — by a long shot.
The unexpected location of the find, coupled with previous discoveries of early human remains dating back 260,000 years in South Africa and 195,000 years in Ethiopia, casts doubt on the story that the first members of our species evolved in a single region of the African continent, study authors said.
“Our results challenge this picture in a number of ways,” said paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who led the work. “There is no Garden of Eden in Africa, or if there is a Garden of Eden, it’s Africa. The Garden of Eden is the size of Africa.”
Not all of the fossils cataloged in the papers are new discoveries. Six of the 22 specimens were first unearthed in the 1960s as the result of barite mining operations at Jebel Irhoud, the archaeological site that is located between Marrakesh and Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
At the time of the initial discovery, scientists concluded that the fossils were about 40,000 years old. However, that date didn’t seem right to many researchers.
“The previous age estimate on the Jebel Irhoud hominin never made sense,” said Curtis Marean, an archaeologist at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University in Tempe, who was not involved in the new work.
The shape of the fossilized bones looked too primitive for their supposed relatively young age, Marean said. In addition, the plant and animal evidence found in the same location as the bones didn’t match the environmental conditions that would have been present in the area 40,000 years ago.
There is no Garden of Eden in Africa, or if there is a Garden of Eden, it’s Africa. The Garden of Eden is the size of Africa.
— Paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Hublin and his colleagues also felt that the fossils had been inaccurately dated and wanted to do something about it. They visited Jebel Irhoud several times throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and officially resumed excavations there in 2004.
The researchers believe that the site was once a cave that probably provided shelter to small bands of early humans who came to the area to hunt gazelles and zebra. Their flint tools, sharpened into pointed forms that were probably spearheads, appear to be made from material collected at least 15 miles away.
“This suggests they visited high-quality locations to collect flint and then carried it around to places like Jebel Irhoud where they could stop and retool their weaponry,” said Shannon McPherron, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who worked on the study.
Over the course of its work, the team discovered 16 additional hominin bones, as well as stone artifacts consistent with the dawn of the Middle Stone Age. They also found gazelle and zebra bones that suggested the animals were deliberately butchered and cooked over a fire.