Top Story: January 27, 2011

Out of Africa Earlier

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Genetic evidence seems to indicate that we are all part of a small group of modern humans that emigrated out of Africa about 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. But new research is finding that our species may have left that continent earlier, traveling to different pockets. Where, when, how and what happened to these humans remains a mystery.

A new study, published online today in the journal Science, only adds to the conundrum. From the New York Times:

“This is a huge milestone, but unfortunately it raises more questions than it answers,” said Jeffrey Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham in England.

The study is based on several stone tools found in the United Arab Emirates. The tools date to around 125,000 years ago.  They are similar to those found  belonging to humans in East Africa. In addition, the area is beyond the known boundaries of Neanderthals. Did these tools belong to modern humans? Were Homo sapiens in Arabia that long ago?

The authors of the study propose that the conditions may have favorable for leaving Africa for the peninsula during this time. From Brian Switek’s blog in Wired:

Lower sea levels may have opened a path, and increased rainfall would have made the Jebel Faya area [in the UAE] less arid than it is today.

No remains were found in the area, so the tool-users cannot be definitively confirmed. And theories of human migration always spark debate. Scientists in varying articles regarding the publication call the study “provocative”, an “audacious claim” and find “not a scrap of evidence” indicating the tools belonged to modern humans. Perhaps Alison Brooks, an archaeologist at George Washington University, puts it best on NPR:

Certainly it's a very intriguing find, and it should hopefully spur research in all kinds of places and directions that haven't been undertaken before.

Image: Science /AAAS

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