Earliest human remains in eastern Africa dated to more than 230,000 years ago

Dawn of humanity pushed back 30,000 years By Sarah Collins

Omo Kibish Formation in southwestern Ethiopia. Credit: Céline Vidal.

“The Omo Kibish Formation is an extensive sedimentary deposit which has been barely accessed and investigated in the past,” said co-author and co-leader of the field investigation Professor Asfawossen Asrat from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, who is currently at BIUST in Botswana. “Our closer look into the stratigraphy of the Omo Kibish Formation, particularly the ash layers, allowed us to push the age of the oldest Homo sapiens in the region to at least 230,000 years.”

“Unlike other Middle Pleistocene fossils which are thought to belong to the early stages of the Homo sapiens lineage, Omo I possesses unequivocal modern human characteristics, such as a tall and globular cranial vault and a chin,” said co-author Dr Aurélien Mounier from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “The new date estimate, de facto, makes itthe oldest unchallenged Homo sapiens in Africa.”

The researchers say that while this study shows a new minimum age for Homo sapiens in eastern Africa, it’s possible that new finds and new studies may extend the age of our species even further back in time.

“We can only date humanity based on the fossils that we have, so it’s impossible to say that this is the definitive age of our species,” said Vidal. “The study of human evolution is always in motion: boundaries and timelines change as our understanding improves. But these fossils show just how resilient humans are: that we survived, thrived and migrated in an area that was so prone to natural disasters.”

“It’s probably no coincidence that our earliest ancestors lived in such a geologically active rift valley – it collected rainfall in lakes, providing fresh water and attracting animals, and served as a natural migration corridor stretching thousands of kilometres,” said Oppenheimer. “The volcanoes provided fantastic materials to make stone tools and from time to time we had to develop our cognitive skills when large eruptions transformed the landscape.”

“Our forensic approach provides a new minimum age for Homo sapiens in eastern Africa, but the challenge still remains to provide a cap, a maximum age, for their emergence, which is widely believed to have taken place in this region,” said co-author Professor Christine Lane, head of the Cambridge Tephra Laboratory where much of the work was carried out. “It’s possible that new finds and new studies may extend the age of our species even further back in time.”

“There are many other ash layers we are trying to correlate with eruptions of the Ethiopian Rift and ash deposits from other sedimentary formations,” said Vidal. “In time, we hope to better constrain the age of other fossils in the region.”

The research was supported in part by the Leverhulme Trust, the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund and the Natural Environment Research Council and the National Environmental Isotope Facility. Céline Vidal is a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

Céline M. Vidal et al. ‘
Age of the oldest Homo sapiens from eastern Africa.’ Nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04275-8

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