News Focus

Was North Africa the Launch Pad for Modern Human Migrations?

Science  07 Jan 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6013, pp. 20-23
DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6013.20

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Summary

Until very recently, most researchers studying the origins of Homo sapiens focused on the fossils of East Africa and the sophisticated tools and ornaments of famed South African sites such as Blombos Cave. Few scientists thought that much of evolutionary significance had gone on in North Africa, or that the region's big-toothed, somewhat archaic-looking hominins might be closely related to the ancestors of many living people. Now, thanks to new excavations and more accurate dating, North Africa boasts unequivocal signs of modern human behavior as early as anywhere else in the world, including South Africa. Climate reconstructions and fossil studies now suggest that the region was more hospitable during key periods than once thought. The data suggest that the Sahara Desert was a land of lakes and rivers about 130,000 years ago, when moderns first left Africa for sites in what is today Israel. And new studies of hominin fossils suggest some strong resemblances—and possible evolutionary connections—between North African specimens and fossils representing migrations out of Africa between 130,000 and 40,000 years ago.