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The Beginning of Modern Humans

NY Times, June 15, 2003

One of the essential attributes of modern humans is to wonder about the origins of modern humans. The
wondering may now have become a little more precise.
Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley have announced the discovery of three skulls in
Ethiopia that have nearly modern features and that can be precisely dated to 160,000 to 154,000 years old. The
date is as critical as the cranial features, which were painstakingly reconstructed over six years. The skulls
roughly coincide with what genetic evidence suggests is "the origin of modern human variation," as one scientist
puts it, and they date from a period when the fossil evidence for hominids is extremely thin. The discoverers of
the skulls place them in a subspecies of Homo sapiens called Homo sapiens idaltu. Idaltu means elder in Afar,
the local language in the region where the skulls were found. We belong to Homo sapiens sapiens.
"Skull," of course, suggests an almost Hamlet-like contemplation of poor Yorick. But these skulls,
belonging to two adults and a child, were found in pieces, with no other human skeletal remains, and they
lacked jaws. The most complete skull, when painstakingly fitted together, yielded what looks like a three-
dimensional jigsaw puzzle, recognizably modern to paleoanthropologists but not to most of the rest of us. But
computer simulations and artist's renderings of how this person may have looked result in a distinctly modern
face, though slightly larger and more robust than that of most modern humans. The heavy brow of earlier
ancestors has been replaced by a flat face with prominent cheekbones. The features that set this Ethiopian
predecessor into a separate subspecies from us would be barely discernible to a passer-by.
For humans, these skulls add a critical piece of evidence supporting the theory that modern humans,
like prehuman hominids, first emerged in Africa. For Neanderthals, however, these skulls are yet another blow. It
becomes clearer and clearer, as research adds up, that no matter how deeply rooted they were in Europe,
Neanderthals played no part in the genetic makeup of modern humans. Because of that, the temptation is to say
that Neanderthals were a dead end, especially because they became extinct some 30,000 years ago. But to have
lived and prospered, as the Neanderthals may have done, for more than 200,000 years is success in its own
right. By the light of these new finds, modern humans can claim no more.

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