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New and Surprising Information about Early Homo sapiens

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 8/31/2008

The results of research carried out in Ethiopia have produced some fascinating new information about Homo sapiens during a relatively recent period of human evolution.

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    Early Human Ancestors

    The earliest known example of Homo sapiens lived around 200,000 years ago. The earliest human fossil was tall and thin, likely male—and according to the results of a series of studies soon to be published in the Journal of Human Evolution, shared some physical characteristics with Neanderthals.

    The studies also share some information about the culture of these first humans, their possible lifestyle and habitat. There’s also some new and interesting information about their neighbors, who, the researchers say, were members of Homo erectus, an early species believed to have been the first human to leave Africa.

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    Our Ancestors had some Unexpected Neighbors

    The Homo sapiens fossil—dubbed ‘Omo I’ by researchers—belonged to a male who stood around 5’10” and weight around 150 pounds. Parts of the skeleton were excavated in 1967 in southern Ethiopia, along with several other partial and complete skeletons. The remainder of Omo I was unearthed more recently, along with another complete skeleton of the species Homo erectus, which has been named ‘Omo II.’

    Dating the two skeletons has shown that both species lived at approximately the same time—meaning that Homo sapiens and Homo erectus may have coexisted here. Both skeletons were excavated from the same geological layer of volcanic rock, allowing scientists to calculate precisely how long ago they existed by examining the ratio of minerals in the rock.

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    Geological Detective Work Uncovers Habitat Information

    During the study, an anthropologist examined the soil the specimens were found in, hoping to find artifacts relating to their culture. He found stone tools, including hand axes, picks, and spear-like objects, as well as raw materials such as pebbles which had been obtained from nearby locations.

    Other excavations at the site revealed information about the habitat of these early humans. Catfish spines and other fish fossils were abundant in the area, and geological evidence also indicated that conditions 200,000 years ago were somewhat wetter. Another study on the large mammals present in the area showed that those early humans lived with abundant species of big game, including elephants, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, hippos, and others.

    From this evidence, an archeobiolgist has theorized that these early humans followed the game, practicing a seasonal settlement strategy which ensured they always had access to food. Interestingly, few examples of non-human primates and carnivorous animals were found in the area, perhaps indicating that our ancestors had few or no predators during this period of human evolution.

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    More to the Story

    For now, Omo I is the world’s fossilized “Adam,” at least until an earlier example of modern humans is found—which is entirely possible. One reason for the discovery of so many well-preserved specimens of early humanity in Ethiopia is that the geology here is particularly conducive to bone preservation.

    However, this doesn’t mean there are no fossils present in other locations. Paleontology is an opportunistic science, meaning that discoveries are made only in locations where there are opportunities to find them. The presence of fossils and other evidence can tell a story in the location where they’re found, but it’s not necessarily possible to extrapolate that evidence to other locations.