Fossil discovery - new piece in the puzzle
A prehistoric human skull from the Eastern Cape has provided a vital
"missing link" in the fossil record which shows that modern people
originally came from sub-Saharan Africa and migrated to colonise Europe and Asia
around 30 000 to 40 000 years ago.
The 36 000-year-old Hofmeyr skull, named after the Karoo town where it was
found, shows that people living in Africa at that time looked the same as people
living in Europe then.
This critical piece of evidence, which is published in the journal Science on
Friday, corroborates genetic evidence about the African origins of modern
humans. It is the first fossil evidence to support the "out of Africa"
theory, which holds that all modern humans evolved in Africa and then migrated
to Europe and Asia.
Alan Morris of UCT's department of human biology, was part of an
international team, led by Frederick Grine of Stony Brook University in New
York, that studied the skull.
'The skull is probably male and is completely modern'
"The skull is probably male and is completely modern. If he sat down next
to you on the Sea Point bus you would not react, apart from wondering where he
came from. He would not look like modern Africans or like modern Europeans, or
like modern Khoisan people, but he is definitely a modern human being,"
The skull was found decades ago, but was dated only recently. It was found in
an erosion gulley in the mid-1950s near Hofmeyr, 70km north-east of Cradock.
Morris, who first saw the skull in the Port Elizabeth Museum in the 1990s,
showed it to Grine a couple of years ago. Grine had it dated by a method
developed by Richard Bailey of Oxford University.
Grine said in a statement that the field of anthropology was known for its
hotly contested debates. One which had raged for years concerned the
evolutionary origin of modern people. A number of genetic studies of living
people indicated that modern humans had evolved in Africa and moved to Europe
and Asia between 65 000 and 25 000 years ago to colonise these continents.
But he said other DNA tests argued against this Africa origin and exodus
DNA tests argued against this Africa origin and exodus model
"Instead they suggested that archaic, non-African people, such as the
Neanderthals of Europe, made significant contributions to the genomes of modern
humans in Europe and Asia. Until now, the lack of fossil evidence from
sub-Saharan Africa has meant that two competing genetic models of human
evolution could not be tested by palaeontological evidence. The skull from
Hofmeyr has changed that," he said.
Once the skull had been dated in Oxford, it was studied by other members of
the team at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. The scientists there had
expected the Hofmeyr skull to have close resemblances to the Khoisan, because
they are represented in the recent archaeological record in South Africa.
Instead, the Hofmeyr fossil was found to have a very close affinity with the
fossil skulls of Europeans of the Upper Palaeolithic, and is quite distinct from
Grine said the evidence from the Hofmeyr skull agreed with the "out of
Africa" genetic theory, which predicted that humans similar to those who
lived in Europe and Asia around 36 000 years ago, would also be found in
sub-Saharan Africa during the same period.
The Hofmeyr skull from the Karoo provides the first fossil evidence to
support this prediction. - Cape Times
This article was originally published on page 1 of Cape
Times on January 12, 2007