Until recently the Jebel Irhoud skull was thought to belong to a Neanderthal
The Natural History Museum/Alamy
JEBEL IRHOUD, Morocco, 1961. In a barium mine in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, a miner makes a ghoulish discovery: a near-complete human skull embedded in the sediment. Archaeologists called in to investigate find that the skull is old, but not that old. It is filed away and largely forgotten.
Hinxton, UK, 2019. Robert Foley, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge, is giving the opening address at a three-day conference on human evolution. “What I’m pretty sure of is that, by the end of the first day, something like 20 per cent of what I say will be wrong,” he says to the hall. “By the end of the second day, something like 50 per cent will be wrong, and at the end of the conference, I’m hoping that something I said at the beginning still holds true.”
Until recently, the story of our origins was thought to be settled: Homo sapiens evolved in eastern Africa about 150,000 years ago, became capable of modern behaviour some 60,000 years ago and then swept out of Africa to colonise the world, completely replacing any archaic humans they encountered. But new fossils, tools and analyses of ancient and modern genomes are tearing apart that neat tale. The Jebel Irhoud skull has turned out to be a key to a new, slowly emerging paradigm. With the dust yet fully to settle, the question now is how many, if any, of our old assumptions still hold. “Should we …