A 'Geographic' trail: From Africa to your television
Late into the spring 2009 excavation season, archaeologists working in a cave along the western coast of Morocco found the skull and upper torso of an ancient child of probably 8 or 9 years old. Excited about the discovery, the research team, including Harold Dibble, co-leader of the team and international affiliated faculty of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins, contacted one of the project’s main funders, National Geographic Society, to tell them about the find.
The next day, National Geographic dispatched a crew to the site to film the process of how fossils are carefully liberated from the sediments that have held them for thousands of years and traveled with the bones through the careful handling of cleaning, analyzing, and dating of the artifacts that tell our human story. The documentary, “The World’s Oldest Child,” will be shown on the National Geographic Channel’s Naked Science program at 6 p.m., June 16.
Along with Dibble, who is on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Emily Hallett-Desguez, doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is featured in the National Geographic show describing the faunal, or animal, remains that help build the picture of what these early modern humans ate, what tools they made or used, and ultimately, how they lived.
The cave site is called Grotte des Contrebandiers, or Smuggler’s Cave, in Temara on the Atlantic coast, and initial analysis places the fossil’s age to around 108,000 years ago from an early member of our species. During the last decade, that area of North Africa has been drawing the attention of anthropologists who are searching for answers to where modern humans left Africa and migrated into Eurasia.
During 2006 and 2007, Institute of Human Origins professor Kaye Reed and doctoral students Jamie Hodgkins and Amy Rector also worked in these caves, which are also known for their rare association of hominid remains and a particular kind of stone tool production, called Aterian.
Reed has just finished a lab season identifying fauna from the Contrebandiers cave with Hallett-Desquez in Morocco where, surprisingly, they have found evidence of bears and rhinos. They have also begun to reconstruct the habitats from several of the excavation levels, including the one associated with “Bouchra” – the nickname of the “oldest child” fossil.
Institute of Human Origins’ professor Curtis Marean is researching early modern human survival and tool production along the same archaeological time period but in caves along the southern most tip of Africa. Asked about this discovery of the “oldest child” fossil for an article in the Jan. 7, 2011 issue of Science, Marean said that because of the new evidence that shows that North Africans maybe responsible for both early and later Homo sapiens migration out of Africa, if he was not already working in South Africa, he would probably be in North Africa.
The Smuggler’s Cave excavation is also being documented by Harold Dibble and colleagues at http://www.oldstoneage.com with information about the history of the site and addressing the timing, spread, and origins of anatomically modern hominids and modern behavior through research in Morocco and other sites. Dibble also recently published (with coauthors) the first scientific paper by an Institute of Human Origins internationally affiliated faculty in the June 2011 Journal of Archaeological Science about the form of stone tool flakes in tool making.
The Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University is the leading research organization in the United States devoted to the science of human origins. A research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, the institute pursues a transdisciplinary strategy for field and analytical paleoanthropological research central to its 30-year-old founding mission – integrating social, earth, and life science approaches to the most important questions concerning the course, timing, and causes of human evolutionary change over deep time. The Institute of Human Origins also links to its research activities innovative public outreach programs that create timely, accurate information for education and lay communities. For more information about the institute and its 30th anniversary activities, visit http://iho.asu.edu.