In 1999 a team of scientists, led by Tim White from the University of California, Berkeley, were wandering Ethiopia in search of fossils when they stumbled across an ancient hippopotamus skull that had been butchered for some ancient meal. To their surprise not far from it, embedded in the sediments of an old river bed near the village of Herto they found something else. Something far more exciting and far more important to the scientific community.

They found a new subspecies of human.

For years people have wondered about the missing link, that step of evolution that came between our heavily brow-ridged ancestors, Homo neanderthalensis and modern humans.

The earliest modern human we had been aware of previously was Cro-Magnon, who lived "35 000 BP to the end of the last Ice Age a little over 10,000 years ago." Prior to him all we had was Neanderthal man, who lived 150,000 to 100,000 years ago. That leaves quite a gap.

The Herto hominids, as they are currently being dubbed, have been aged at 160,000 years old. Wait, wait, wait. You said this was modern man. How is that possible if it's older than Neanderthal man? You're right! That's the most exciting part of this discovery!

These three skulls are older than Neanderthal man, and yet they have both primitive and modern features. They are the oldest human fossils with characterists of modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens. But they also have strange markings unlike anything we've seen before on remains.

The skulls, two adult's and one child's, all have a strange pattern of cuts marked in them. Not random scratches left from bones being tossed, or caused by drifting at the bottom of the river and dragged across rocks. No, these were deliberate marks. At first they thought maybe it was some form of cannibalism or something. The tools used to skin the bones would have left cut marks behind. But it didn't take long to rule that out. The marks have a pattern to them, and are similar on all three skulls, suggesting that perhaps the remains were marked in some kind of ceremony. This could mean they had religious beliefs concerning their dead. They believe it is an indication of an ancient mortuary practice. We won't know for sure. Not yet.

What we do know is this:
  • That they were found near an ancient river bed and with hippopotamus remains shows the animals were in their diet. We can't be sure if they were hunting them or just scavenging off their bones, but at least we know they were eating meat.
  • The child's skull was far smoother than the adults, had been handled more. This could mean that the death of a child was considered a greater loss than the adults. That's just speculation at this point, but clearly the child's skull had some kind of importance.
Along with the skulls were some other fragments of bone that came from other Herta hominids. The final excited buzz surrounding the discovery of this new subspecies in Ethiopia, is that it supports the Out of Africa theory. The barrier in this theory had always been a lack of finds dating between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago. The Herto hominids have provided the link between archaic African fossils and modern Late Pleistocene humans, making the idea that we all came from Africa that much closer to fact than theory.

Tim White, Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, Nature Magazine, June 2003.

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