Oldest Human Fossils?

Humanity’s current model may be a whole lot older than we thought.

A team of scientists say that remains found in Morocco are human, Homo sapiens. The scientists also say these folks lived about 300,000 years ago.

They were around 100,000 years earlier and about 2,000 miles away from where we thought Homo sapiens showed up. If their identity and age is confirmed, we’ll be rewriting and rethinking our knowledge of humanity’s origins.

Other scientists say T. rex may not have been fluffy. It looks like the big dinosaur lost its feathers somewhere along the line.

Opportunities for Appreciation

Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, Stacy/U.S. Geological Survey's 'The geologic time spiral—A path to the past (ver. 1.1)' (2008)I’m a Christian, a Catholic, so I accept that God is creating a good, orderly, and knowable world. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268, 279, 299, 301)

I’m also fascinated by (real) science.

Each time we learn something new about how this universe works, it’s a new opportunity to appreciate God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

I don’t see that as a problem.

Using the brains God gave us seems much more reasonable than fearing that we’ll awaken cosmic horrors, or ‘offend the spirits’ by showing an interest in God’s work. (December 16, 2016; July 15, 2016)

Because I’m a Christian, I see time as a characteristic of this universe, not an eternal constant; and basically linear.

I figure God could have created a static universe that started in a perfect state, and stays that way. But that’s not how our current home works. This universe is in a “state of journeying” toward perfection that we haven’t reached yet. (Catechism, 302)

This Universe as a Desktop Project

Like I said, I’m not worried that we’ll ‘learn too much.’

I’m also not concerned that I’ll go someplace where God can’t see or hear me.

This universe is a desktop project: from God’s viewpoint. That’s being very anthropomorphic.

Beautiful poetic imagery notwithstanding, God doesn’t sit on a throne at some particular place in this cosmos.

The Almighty, the I AM, is beyond this universe: and “here” in each place that can be, is, or has been; immediately present at all times, past, present and future. (Catechism, 300)

As a Christian, I take God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, very seriously.

That doesn’t keep me from realizing that everyone has wondered where we came from, what we’re doing, and where we’re going. Folks have come up with quite a few ideas. It’s part of being human. (Catechism, 285)

The natural human desire to know may be a reason Ussher worked out his timetable. What I’m not sure about is why so many folks still insist that the universe started at a particular day near the autumnal equinox in 4004 BC. (March 10, 2017; October 28, 2016)

Ussher’s chronology was pretty good scholarship, three and a half centuries back. But we’ve learned a great deal since then.

It Happened Earlier

‘It happened earlier’ seems like a recurring theme in our study of Earth’s past, and ours.

Ussher’s estimate of a few thousand years was topped in 1779, when the Comte du Buffon measured how fast a sphere cooled.

His estimate for Earth’s age was about 75,000 years.

About a century later, using different criteria, the 1st Baron Kelvin decided Earth could be anywhere from 20,000,000 to 400,000,000 years old.

The current estimate is 4,540,000,000 years, give or take 50,000,000. (March 10, 2017)

That hasn’t changed significantly in the last several years.

Most scientists were pretty sure that anatomically modern humans, folks who look pretty much like the current model, got started about 200,000 years back.

We’re learning that the number may be off by about 100,000 years. Folks who look like us may be a whole lot older.

There’s going to be lively debate about this, for good reason.

My guess is that we’ll need more evidence before the question gets resolved. But if we do have deeper roots, I won’t be surprised. We’ve been learning that quite a few things happened earlier than we thought.

Each time we do, it’s an opportunity for greater admiration of God’s work. Like I keep saying, God thinks big.

1. Origins: A New Chapter in Humanity’s Story

(From Philipp Gunz/MPI EVA Leipzig, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“A reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens skull based on scans of multiple original fossils”
(BBC News))

‘First of our kind’ found in Morocco
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (June 7, 2017)

The idea that modern people evolved in a single ‘cradle of humanity’ in East Africa some 200,000 years ago is no longer tenable, new research suggests.

“Fossils of five early humans have been found in North Africa that show Homo sapiens emerged at least 100,000 years earlier than previously recognised.

“It suggests that our species evolved all across the continent, the scientists involved say….”

Jebel Irhoud is our name for a place in Morocco, about 100 kilometers, 60 miles, West of Marrakesh.

Folks were mining baryte there in 1960. Baryte is an additive in drilling fluid, paint, and plastic; and has other uses.

Mining uncovered a silt-filled cave in 1960. Scientists found mammal fossils there in 1960s, including Hominids. That’s another name for great apes: critters like gibbons, gorillas, chimps — and us.

I could bristle with indignation that humans have anything to do with the stuff of this world. But that doesn’t make sense. Not to me. (March 10, 2017; November 18, 2016; September 23, 2016)

Studying the other remains let the scientists make a rough estimate of when the cave filled with silt. Besides the Hominds, they found early versions of horses and cattle, gazelles, rhinos and predators.

Tools, Neanderthals, and Anthropometry

They found stone tools, too, like that set in the photo. Whoever made them used the Levallois technique.

Tools like that had been found mostly with Neanderthals at the time scientists started studying the Jebel Irhoud site.

We’re still quite sure that Neanderthals made tools like these. But so did a lot of other folks. We’re not sure who developed them first.

Scientists are still discussing how the technique was standardized across much of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

I figure that whoever invented the tech either passed the skill along to others, who swapped how-to tips with their neighbors.

Or maybe the originals were export items, reverse-engineered elsewhere. Probably both. Folks travel, trade, share information, and study what others have done today.

I don’t see why folks who lived before us would act differently.

Anyway, Levallois tools were considered ‘Neanderthal’ tech back in the 1960s, so assuming that the remains were Neanderthal was reasonable.

They do look a bit like some Neanderthal remains.

But we’ve learned more about Neanderthals, humanity’s current model, and anthropometry, since then.

Folks living at Jebel Irhoud don’t look exactly like anyone living today. But they’ve got more in common with Homo sapiens than with the folks we call Neanderthals.1

2. Tweety Rex? Maybe Not

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“T. rex was one of the largest terrestrial carnivores of all time”
(BBC News)

Study casts doubt on the idea of ‘big fluffy T. rex’
Helen Briggs, BBC News (June 7, 2017)

Despite its ancestors having feathers, Tyrannosaurus rex most likely had scaly skin, according to fossil evidence.

“Researchers say the huge predator had scales much like modern reptiles rather than feathers or fluff.

“The dinosaur may have ditched its feathers because it no longer needed insulation when it reached gigantic proportions, they propose….”

Scientists studying critters like dinosaurs are like the blind men and an elephant. Different folks find different bits of the same reality, and — you know the story.

Based on evidence and inductive reasoning, they conclude that the elephant is like a wall, a fan, a tree, a snake, and a spear.

Each is right, sort of: and wrong. Also sort of. I figure the story shows that a small part of a greater reality is just that: a small part. It may be typical of the whole, or not.

Interestingly, I haven’t run across a retelling of that tale where the moral is that since the blind men don’t agree — the elephant doesn’t exist.

That would, I think, make about as much sense as some arguments against evolution. And that’s another topic. (May 19, 2017; May 5, 2017; March 31, 2017)

Facts and Chicken Feet

Dinosaurs with feathers isn’t a new idea, although it wasn’t generally accepted until recently. My notion of “recently,” that is.

Huxley noticed that Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx skeletons were alike in some ways. Folks found Archaeopteryx fossils with feather impressions in 1861.

Huxley said maybe Archaeopteryx, a bird, sort of, had evolved from a dinosaur.

Meanwhile, folks with religious objections to stuff we’ve been learning in the last few millennia were having conniptions over evolution. They probably still are.

I’ve heard outrage expressed over the idea that birds could be like dinosaurs.

But I’ve seen reconstructions of extinct theropod feet, and I’ve seen chicken feet. Aside from size, there’s not all that much difference.

Scientists apparently thought Huxley’s idea was interesting. But they didn’t “believe in” feathered dinosaurs. Not until they found more evidence.

I’m not a scientist, but as I’ve said: I don’t see a problem with using our brains. Even if I wasn’t interested in science, I’d have to take evidence, facts, seriously.

Faith, for me, means willingly and consciously embracing “the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142–150)

The whole truth, not just the bits I like. (May 21, 2017; May 7, 2017; March 10, 2017)

It helps, I think, that I enjoy learning new facts, and that’s yet another topic.

Tweet! Tweet! — SHRIEK!

By Emily Willoughby (2014)In 1931, scientists found Deinonychus fossils in Montana.

Barnum Brown, the team leader, dubbed the critter “Daptosaurus agilis,” and prepped the specimens for later extraction.

That didn’t happen. Scientists have priorities, like everyone else. The might-be-interesting lumps would have been a chore to work loose from the surrounding rock.

About three decades later, John Ostrom went fossil hunting in another part of Montana, finding more Deinonychus remains. He realized that Brown’s specimens were probably from the same sort of critter.

Cutting an excessively long story short, we’ve learned that Deinonychus was an 11-foot, 200-pound, feathered hunter. Think a nightmare version of roadrunners; with sharp teeth and sharper, oversize, claws.

Dinosaur Feathers?

(From RJPalmerArt, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(T. rex with feathers, and lips. Whether the critter had either is still debated.)

About T. rex, size, and feathers; we still don’t have a fossil that shows the whole critter and a clear impression of its hide. Many or most birds have scales and feathers. Maybe T. rex did, too.

Or maybe not. Critters have options for thermoregulation, regulating body temperature. Not that they decide to have feathers, fur, or whatever.

It’s not just animals. Some plants make their own heat. The Indian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, for example, stays 20 °Centigrade, 36 °Fahrenheit, when it’s flowering.

The plant gets heat by ‘burning’ starch stored in its roots, consuming oxygen at a rate on a par with a hummingbird in flight.2

Some animals, like elephants, don’t need much in the way of hair or feathers. Gigantothermy, being really big, isn’t insulation, quite; but volume increases faster than surface area.

Other critters change how much heat they gain or lose by changing behavior. Textbooks will give examples like a dogs panting, or bears hibernating.

I see what humans do as a sort of behavioral temperature regulation. From that viewpoint, our habit of developing tech like cloth and HVAC is behavior: operating over long timescales. And that’s, you guessed it, yet again another topic. Topics.

More opportunities for greater appreciation:

1 What we’re learning about our story:

2 Dinosaurs, birds, and biology; more than you may need or want to know:

How interesting or useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

I am sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let me learn why!

How could I have made this more nearly worth your time?

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
This entry was posted in Science News and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Oldest Human Fossils?

  1. Pingback: Oldest Human Fossils? ~ Catholic Canada

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Stutter: “make a rough estimate of when when the cave filled with silt.”

    Extra or wrong word: “Neanderthals made this tools like these.”

    ‘Oversized?’ “sharp teeth and sharper, oversize, claws.”

    Extra word or missing apostrophe: “will give examples like a dogs panting or bears hibernating.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!