Modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolved from our archaic ancestors sometime around 315,000 years ago.
For many years, human remains from this far back had not been found, but researchers recently re-analyzed several old finds and have dated them to this time period.
It seems like every year scientists uncover new information that keeps reshaping our history. For now, this list shows what are currently believed to be the oldest human remains.
8. Mungo Man
Age: 40,000 – 60,000 years old Country of Origin: Australia Year Discovered: 1974
photo source: Wikimedia Commons via James Maurice Bowler
The Lake Mungo remains from Australia, which are known as Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, are the oldest human remains ever found in Australia. The Mungo Woman’s remains were found first in 1967 – she had been cremated her remains were found buried in a small pit. Her remains are dated to 42,000 years ago, making it the world’s oldest cremation.
The Mungo Man was found a few years later, only a few meters away from where the Mungo Woman had been found. The remains are a mostly complete skeleton of a man who was carefully buried and and adorned with red ochre.
Since the Mungo Man was discovered in 1974, he has been at the Australian National University in Canberra. However, in 2014 leading up to the 40th anniversary of his discovery, the aboriginal people of Willandra Lakes formally requested return and repatriation of the remains.
The body was finally returned in November 2017 and his remains were buried directly in the earth in a casket of ancient red gum.
7. Tam Pa Ling Remains
Age: 46,000 – 63,000 years old Country of Origin: Laos Year Discovered: 2009 and 2010
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The skull fragments found in 2009 at the Tam Pa Ling cave in Laos are the oldest modern human remains found in Southeast Asia. The skull was identified as belonging to a modern human with distinct Sub-Saharan African features. Two jawbone fragments were also found at the site and have both archaic human and modern human traits.
The discovery of the specimens was significant because it filled in a 60,000 year gap in the human fossil record. It shows that modern humans were in Southeast Asia since at least 60,000 years ago and brings scientists one step closing to figuring out when humans spread from Africa into Asia.
6. Skuhl-Qafzeh Remains
Age: 80,000 – 120,000 years old Country of Origin: Israel Year Discovered: 1929 – 1935
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The remains found at the Qafzeh and Es Skhul caves in Israel between 1929 – 1935, were initially thought to belong to a hominin species that was a “missing link” between Neanderthals and modern humans.
Archaeologists initially believed that the Skuhl-Qafzeh people had evolved from the Neanderthals, whose remains were found in nearby caves.
However, new researcher shows that the Skuhl-Qafzeh were a group of ancient modern humans and the nearby Neanderthals had come after them.
Newer theories about the Skuhl-Qafzeh people suggest that they were one of the rare early failures of Homo sapiens.
About 75,000 years ago when the Homo sapiens of Skhul and Qafzeh disappear from the fossil record, the climate in the area got colder.
Neanderthals were better suited for the cold than early humans, which explains why the Neanderthal remains found in nearby caves are much younger than the Skuhl-Qafzeh remains.
5. Herto Man
Age: about 160,000 years old Country of Origin: Ethiopia Year Discovered: 1997
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Herto Man, which was discovered in 1997, is considered a human subspecies called Homo sapiens idaltu. After six years of research, scientists released a report in 2003 saying that Herto Man skulls were the oldest-known human remains yet found. The skull is estimated to be about 160,000 years old and confirmed the old theory that modern humans evolved in Africa.
Scientists were able to piece together tree skulls from the remains – two belong to adult males and the other one to a six or seven year old child. Most of Homo sapiens idaltu’s features are similar to ours, except they had remarkably large heads. According to scientists, their large skulls suggest that they were “very, very large robust people.”
4. Misliya Cave Jawbone
Age: 177,000 – 194,000 years old Country of Origin: Israel Year Discovered: 2014
photo source: The New York Times
In 2018, a jawbone that had originally been dated to 150,000 years ago was re-analyzed and estimated to be between 177,000 – 194,000 years old.
When the new report was published scientists were calling the jawbone the oldest-known Homo sapiens remains outside Africa. The new research suggests that modern humans left Africa much earlier than previously thoughts.
Earlier discoveries in Israel led scientists to believe that humans started migrating from Africa between 90,000 – 120,000 years ago.
The excavated upper jawbone consists of seven intact teeth and one broken incisor. Scientists believe that the teeth bear Homo sapiens traits and do not resemble the teeth of any other human relatives from the time period.
3. Omo Remains
Age: 195,000 years old Country of Origin: Ethiopia Year Discovered: 1967
photo source: Live Science
Before new research was released in 2017, the human remains found at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia were believed to be the oldest-known Homo sapiens remains ever found.
The Omo Kibish skullcaps are the reason why most scientists believed that early modern humans originated from East Africa.
While they are no longer the oldest remains, the skullcaps help paint a more complete picture of early human history.
When the skulls were first discovered in 1967 scientists thought that they were no older than 160,000 years. This research was updated in 2005 and moved the skulls back to 195,000 years old. Although the skulls – labeled Omo I and Omo II – are closely related, Omo II is more primitive. This suggests that there were Homo sapiens in the area that were less modern.
2. Dali Man
Age: disputed – between 209,000 – 260,000 Country of Origin: China Year Discovered: 1978
photo source: The Daily Mail
The discovery of a skull from China – dubbed the Dali Man – has challenged long-held beliefs about the evolution and dispersal of Homo sapiens. While most scientists believe that humans originated from African ancestors, the similarities of the Dali Man skull to the earliest human remains in Africa, suggests that not all modern humans came from Africa.
When the skull was first discovered in 1978, archaeologists believed it belonged to a different hominin species Homo erectus.
For years after the discovery of the Dali Man, scientists believed that Homo erectus shared DNA with Homo sapiens.
However, a newer analysis says that the Dali skull is incredibly similar to two Homo sapiens skulls found in Morocco. Further research into the skulls’ similarities may end up rewriting the origins of mankind.
1. Jebel Irhoud Skulls
Age: over 300,000 years old Country of Origin: Morocco Year Discovered: 1960
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The skulls found at the Jebel Irhoud archaeological site in Morocco are believed to be the oldest-known human remains. The first skull was discovered in 1960 by a miner, who gave it to an engineer as a souvenir. The engineer eventually turned the skull over to the University of Rabat and an official expedition to the site took place in 1961.
Since then, several more skulls and other bones have been uncovered. Researchers initially thought the skulls belonged to Neanderthals, but have since determined that they belong to an archaic form of Homo sapiens.
The age of the skulls is estimated to be over 300,000 years old. This information challenges the previous idea that modern humans emerged from Eastern Africa around 200,000 years ago.
Researchers now believe that modern humans were spread across the continent around 330,000 – 300,000 years ago.
45,000-Year-Old Human Remains Found in Bulgarian Cave
In Bulgaria’s Bacho Kiro cave, which was already known to have housed Neanderthals more than 50,000 years ago, researchers have discovered the remains of ancient humans that date to about 46,000–44,000 years ago, according to a study published yesterday (May 11) in Nature. These fossils—a molar and six pieces of bone—are older than any previously analyzed fossils of Homo sapiens, which were from individuals who lived around 45,000 to 41,500 years ago, Science News reports.
The discoveries in the cave also provide evidence that modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals, who didn’t disappear from the region until about 40,000 years ago, according to Science.
“In my view, this is the oldest and strongest published evidence for an IUP (Initial Upper Palaeolithic) presence of H. sapiens in Europe, several millennia before the Neanderthals disappeared,” Chris Stringer, a research leader for human evolution at the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in the work, tells the BBC.
In Bacho Kiro cave, researchers excavate bone fragments, tools, and jewelry.
Study coauthor Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, says that humans and Neanderthals may have coexisted in the region for as long as 8,000 years. “It gives a lot of time for these groups to interact biologically and also culturally and behaviourally,” he tells The Guardian.
See “Neanderthal DNA in Modern Human Genomes Is Not Silent”
Hublin and colleagues determined the fossils were human by analyzing proteins and DNA extracted from them.
The remains were found alongside animal bones and stone artifacts that dated to a similar time period, according to a separate study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution yesterday by Hublin and other colleagues, suggesting the ancient Homo sapiens carved up bison, deer, cave bears, goats, and wild horses.
Hublin and his colleagues also found ivory beads and bear teeth pendants, they reported in their Nature paper, leading them to propose that perhaps these individuals inspired Neanderthals to make similar ornaments a few thousand years later.
“The Bacho Kiro cave provides evidence that pioneer groups of Homo sapiens brought new behaviors into Europe and interacted with local Neandertals,” Hublin tells Science News. Others aren’t convinced.
Stringer notes that Neanderthals are thought to have made ornaments with eagle talons much earlier—around 130,000 years ago.
LucyCatalog no.AL 288-1Common nameLucySpeciesAustralopithecus afarensisAge3.2 million yearsPlace discoveredAfar Depression, EthiopiaDate discoveredNovember 24, 1974 (1974-11-24)Discovered by
- Donald Johanson
- Maurice Taieb
- Yves Coppens
- Tom Gray
Lucy is the common name of AL 288-1, several hundred pieces of fossilized bone representing 40 percent of the skeleton of a female of the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis. In Ethiopia, the assembly is also known as Dinkinesh, which means “you are marvelous” in the Amharic language. Lucy was discovered in 1974 in Africa, at Hadar, a site in the Awash Valley of the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia, by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
The Lucy specimen is an early australopithecine and is dated to about 3.2 million years ago.
The skeleton presents a small skull akin to that of non-hominin apes, plus evidence of a walking-gait that was bipedal and upright, akin to that of humans (and other hominins); this combination supports the view of human evolution that bipedalism preceded increase in brain size. A 2016 study proposes that Australopithecus afarensis was also to a large extent tree-dwelling, though the extent of this is debated.
“Lucy” acquired her name from the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles, which was played loudly and repeatedly in the expedition camp all evening after the excavation team's first day of work on the recovery site. After public announcement of the discovery, Lucy captured much public interest, becoming a household name at the time.
Lucy became famous worldwide, and the story of her discovery and reconstruction was published in a book by Johanson.
Beginning in 2007, the fossil assembly and associated artifacts were exhibited publicly in an extended six-year tour of the United States; the exhibition was called Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia.
There was discussion of the risks of damage to the unique fossils, and other museums preferred to display casts of the fossil assembly. The original fossils were returned to Ethiopia in 2013, and subsequent exhibitions have used casts.
Hominin timelineThis box:
-10 —–-9 —–-8 —–-7 —–-6 —–-5 —–-4 —–-3 —–-2 —–-1 —–0 —HomininiNakalipithecusOuranopithecusOreopithecusSahelanthropusOrrorinArdipithecusAustralopithecusHomo habilisHomo erectusH. heidelbergensisHomo sapiensNeanderthals
The skull of humanity’s oldest known ancestor is changing our understanding of evolution
The recent discovery of a 3.8m-year-old cranium (skull without the lower jaw) is the hottest topic of conversation among palaeoanthropologists right now.
But fossils are found all the time, so why is the cranium of this small, old man so important? It turns out the discovery is changing our view of how early hominin species evolved – and how they led to humans.
To understand how, let’s start at the beginning.
In 1995, researchers found several partial jaws, isolated teeth and limb bones in Kenya, dated between 4.2m and 3.9m years old, and assigned them to a brand new species: Australopithecus anamensis.
All these fossils were found in sediments associated with an ancient lake – “anam”, which means lake in the local language.
A number of additional specimens were then found in Ethiopia, thought to belong to the same species.
The primitive features of A. anamensis have led to the widespread view that this species is the ancestor of Australopithecus afarensis, a younger hominin from Tanzania, Ethiopia and perhaps Kenya, dated between 3.8m and 3m years old. The most iconic fossil of A. afarensis is probably the partial skeleton known as Lucy, which was for a long time viewed as the oldest known human ancestor.
Anagenesis vs cladogenesis.
The newly discovered cranium, nicknamed “MRD” after its collection number MRD-VP-1/1, shows many similarities to the already existing A. anamensis specimens, and was therefore assigned to this species.
However, the MRD cranium was intact enough to allow scientists to analyse for the first time the complete face and braincase, and examine parts of the cranium that were still missing in the fossil record of A.
The authors discovered several new morphological features in the MRD cranium that are conventionally considered to be characteristic of younger species on the human lineage. The depth of the palate, for example, exceeds that of all known A. anamensis and A.
afarensis specimens, and even is among the deepest palates of later Australopithecus species. This challenges the long and widely-held view that Lucy’s species evolved gradually from A.
anamensis without branching of the evolutionary line – a process known as anagenesis.
A 210,000-year-old skull found in Greece is the oldest modern human discovered outside Africa. It changes our timeline of human migration
A piece of skull found in a cave in Greece suggests our human ancestors left Africa far earlier than anthropologists thought.
A study published today in the journal Nature revealed that the skull, which was originally discovered in Greece in the 1970s, belonged to a member of an early population of Homo sapiens and is about 210,000 years old.
The earliest known fossilized remains of modern humans have all been found on the African continent, but this is the earliest evidence of modern humans outside Africa.
It predates what researchers previously considered to be the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe by more than 160,000 years.
(Anthropologists have discovered modern human remains between 42,000 and 45,000 years old in Italy and the UK.)
A tale of 2 skulls
In the late '70s, scientists discovered two partial skulls embedded in the rock of a coastal cave in southern Greece. They named them Apidima 1 and 2, after the cave in which they were found, which overhangs the Aegean Sea and is accessible only by boat.
- Apidima 2 was identified as a Neanderthal, but Apidima 1 wasn't assigned a species.
- Both skulls are incomplete (Apidima 1 consists of only the back of the skull, while Apidima 2 has more intact facial features), and it took anthropologists many years to extricate the fragmented fossils from the surrounding rock.
The digital reconstruction, left, and fossil specimen of Apidima 1. Katerina Harvati, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen
Assigning an age for the specimens also proved challenging, according to Katerina Harvati, the lead author of the new study.