|Map of Morroco showing Grotte des Pigeons|
(c) MailOnline/Johny Reading
About 15,000 years ago, in the oldest known cemetery in the world, people buried their dead in sitting positions with beads and animal horns, deep in a cave in what is now Morocco. These people were also buried with small, sophisticated stone arrowheads and points. Archaeologists assumed they were part of an advanced European culture that had migrated across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa.
Recent studies of their ancient DNA show that they had no European ancestry. Instead, they were related to both Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans, suggesting that more people were migrating in and out of North Africa than previously thought.
First Fossil Evidence of Modern Humans
The first fossil evidence for any modern humans outside Africa comes from the Middle East, from the archaeological sites of Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, dating to around 120,000 years ago. However, this early expansion of modern humans was not maintained. Until recently, the expansion of our own species out of Africa that eventually led to the colonisation of the globe was thought to have occurred after 100,000 years ago.
A re-evaluation of early human remains and artefacts also from Morocco has pushed back the advent of Homo sapiens by 100,000 years. Archaeologists and palaeontologists now think that the oldest of the fossils comes from 300,000 to 350,000 years ago. Skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least five Homo sapiens, along with stone tools and animal bones, have been found at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco.
|Teeth from skeletons unearthered at |
Grotte des Pigeons cave revealing extensive
tooth decay. Credit: Isabelle De Groote
Analysis of deposits from the front of the cave revealed the ancient people indulged on snails, pine nuts and, significantly, carbohydrate-rich acorns, which may have contributed to the tooth decay found in these early people. The new findings suggest that the concept of a ‘sweet tooth’ may be much older than believed. Nevertheless, it is estimated that less than 2% of Stone Age foragers had cavities in their teeth in marked contrast to later populations on a diet high in carbohydrates.
Oldest human DNA evidence from Africa
The oldest human DNA evidence yet from Africa has come from the cave known as the Grotte des Pigeons, near the village of Taforalt in northeast Morocco. Humans occupied this cave on and off from at least 80,000 years ago till about 10,000 years ago. These people lived in the front of the cave and buried their dead in the back.
During recent excavations at Grotte des Pigeons, archaeologists saved the inner-ear petrous bones, which provides an excellent source for ancient DNA. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Jena, Germany, extracted ancient mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on only from mothers to their children, from seven individuals.
The researchers found no genetic tie to ancient Europeans. Known as the Iberomaurusians, they seem to be related to Middle Easterners and other Africans. These people shared about two-thirds of their genetic ancestry with Natufians, hunter-gatherers who lived in the Middle East 14,500 to 11,000 years ago, and one-third with sub-Saharan Africans who were most closely related to today’s West Africans and the Hadza of Tanzania.
Iberomaurusians and Natufians
Further studies will search for the people who gave rise to both the Iberomaurusians, found throughout North Africa, and the Natufians. The Natufian culture existed in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean. The culture was unusual in that it supported a sedentary or semi-sedentary population even before the introduction of agriculture. Natufians founded Jericho which may be the oldest city in the world (Wikipedia).
The theory that Europeans from Sicily or the Iberian Peninsula were buried at Grotte des Pigeons was not supported by DNA analysis. The fact that the Natufian culture existed in the Middle East suggests the Grotte des Pigeons people and the Natufians shared common ancestors from North Africa or the Middle East.
These findings provide new evidence of early contacts between North Africa and the Near East, and regions south of the Sahara Desert. Further DNA studies on other Iberomaurusian sites will be required to establish whether the evidence from the Grotte des Pigeons is representative of the Iberomaurusian gene pool.
The number of ancient DNA studies has increased dramatically over the past two decades, covering a period of human history going back 40,000 years. The oldest human DNA evidence yet from Africa has come from the cave known as the Grotte des Pigeons, in northeast Morocco. Archaeologists had assumed that these ancient people were part of an advanced European culture that had migrated across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. Recent studies of the ancient DNA of these people shows that they had no European ancestry. Instead, they were related to both Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans.