The world’s oldest human remains, unearthed in Africa, may finally solve the puzzle of the origins of man, scientists said on Wednesday.
The 160,000-year-old fossils, the oldest ever Homo sapiens and excavated in a remote region of Ethiopia, appear to prove that the continent was the cradle of humanity, the scientists said.
"This is the definitive answer to whether humans evolved from Africa," archeologist Dr Berhane Asfaw told a news conference in Addis Ababa. "We are waiting to be proved wrong," he said.
Scientists say the three near-complete skulls – one being a child - are the best-preserved remains and between 30,000 and 60,000 years older than previous finds. They are almost five times older than those found in Europe, and the oldest ever direct predecessors of humans. The earliest fossils of Homo sapiens found in Africa had been dated to about 100,000 years, although they were less complete and missing bones.
"Ethiopia is the Garden of Eden," Asfaw said, as he unveiled one of the skulls from the archaeological dig. "The whole history of human evolution is here."
The most famous remains found in Ethiopia was Lucy – a three and a half million-year-old complete skeleton that was discovered in 1974. Archaeologists working in the country have also discovered a skeleton dating back 5.8 million years.
The latest finds - which scientists have named 'Idaltu', meaning 'elder' - were made in a desolate area 224 km miles northeast of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Scattered across the same area were thousands of stone tools, including hand axes, along with the butchered bones of hippopotamus and antelope – their staple food.
"These African fossils are now the world’s oldest near modern humans," said Asfaw, who discovered the skull of the child in 200 pieces. It has taken the last three years, since the bones were excavated, for meticulous cleaning and research work to be complete. The region where the excavations took place is one of the most inhospitable on earth, where temperatures often reach more than 50 degrees centigrade.
Archaeologists, under a joint 20-strong United States and Ethiopian team, have been working in the area for the last six years. Skull fragments from a total of 10 individuals were unearthed but were lacking their jaws and any bones below the neck.
The scientists say that Idaltu has almost identical features to modern humans. The skulls have a prominent forehead, flattened face and reduced brow that contrast with older humans’ projecting, heavy-browed skulls. He has a slightly larger head and brain than modern humans, but the scientists do not believe he was brighter.