The trick was retrieving a complete version of the ancient boy’s DNA from his skeleton to compare with DNA from people today and from Stone Age Neandertals and Denisovans. Previously documented migrations of West African farmers to East Africa around 2,000 years ago, and then to southern Africa around 1,500 years ago, reshaped Africans’ genetics — and obscured ancient ancestry patterns — more than has been known, the researchers report online September 28 in Science.
The ancient boy’s DNA was not affected by those migrations. As a result, it provides the best benchmark so far for gauging when Homo sapiens originated in Africa, evolutionary geneticist Carina Schlebusch of Uppsala University in Sweden and her colleagues conclude.
In line with the new genetically derived age estimate for human origins, another team has proposed that approximately 300,000-year-old fossils found in northwestern Africa belonged to H. sapiens (SN: 7/8/17, p. 6). Some researchers suspect a skull from South Africa’s Florisbad site, dated to around 260,000 years ago, qualifies as H. sapiens. But investigators often place our species’ origins close to 200,000 years ago (SN: 2/26/05, p. 141). There is broad consensus that several fossils from that time represent H. sapiens.What is important to understand is that we have the fossils from Herto and Omo that date to between 150 and 200 thousand but that does not mean that is the earliest time that our species may have actually showed up. The Jebel Irhoud material is only partly modern—in the face mostly—and we do not know how the genetics for this population would look. It is possible that, as some investigators are saying, the Jebel Irhoud material represents the earliest fossil representation of our clade and that over the next 100 thousand years, the modern form fully evolved.