Category Archives: ETHIOPIA

Roman-Era Wine Shop Excavated in Southern Greece

Roman-Era Wine Shop Excavated in Southern Greece

Roman-Era Wine Shop Excavated in Southern Greece
A view of the wine shop from the front.

Archaeologists in Greece have discovered a 1,600-year-old wine shop that was destroyed and abandoned after a “sudden event,” possibly an earthquake or building collapse, left broken vessels and 60 coins scattered on the floor, according to new research.

The shop operated at a time when the Roman Empire controlled the region. It was found in the ancient city of Sikyon (also spelled Sicyon), which is located on the northern coast of the Peloponnese in southern Greece.

Within the wine shop, archaeologists found the scattered coins, as well as the remains of marble tabletops and vessels made of bronze, glass and ceramic.

The wine shop was found on the northern end of a complex that had a series of workshops containing kilns and installations used to press grapes or olives, archaeologists noted in a paper they presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, which was held Jan. 4-7 in Chicago.

The Roman-era shop in Greece was destroyed in a sudden event.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any direct evidence of the types of wine that may have been sold. We have some evidence of grape pips (Vitis vinifera), but we aren’t able to say anything more specific than that right now,” said Scott Gallimore, an associate professor of archaeology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, who co-wrote the paper with Martin Wells, an associate professor of classics at Austin College in an email.

In addition to wine, other items, such as olive oil, may have been sold in the shop.

Most of the coins date to the reign of Constantius II, from 337 to 361, with the latest coin being minted sometime between 355 and 361, Gallimore told Live Science in an email.

The wine shop is on the northern end of a complex. It contains a number of workshops and appears to have been used to make pottery and process wine and perhaps olive oil
One of the coins discovered on the floor of the destroyed wine shop.
A slightly broken coin from the shop. The coins fell on the floor while the destructive event was happening.

Destructive event

The wine shop appears to have suffered a “sudden event” that resulted in its destruction and abandonment, Gallimore said. The 60 bronze coins found in the floor are from the shop’s final moments.

“The coins were all found on the floor of the [shop], scattered across the space,” Gallimore said. “This seems to indicate that they were being kept together as some type of group, whether in a ceramic vessel or some type of bag. When the [shop] was destroyed, that container appears to have fallen to the floor and scattered the coins.

“We’re not sure what type of event this was — possibly an earthquake, or possibly a roof collapse due to environmental conditions, like too much rainfall,” he added.

After the destruction people dumped in debris and sediment “but no effort was made to recover anything from within it.”

The complex that the shop is part of appears to have been abandoned in the early fifth century, possibly at the time of the event.

Fossilized teeth dating back 9.7 million years could ‘rewrite’ human history

Fossilized teeth dating back 9.7 million years could ‘rewrite’ human history

Paleontologists in Germany have discovered 9.7 million-year-old fossilized teeth that a German politician has hailed as potentially “rewriting” human history.

The dental remains were found by scientists sifting through gravel and sand in a former bed of the Rhine River near the town of Eppelsheim.

They resemble those belonging to “Lucy”, a 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of an extinct primate related to humans and found in Ethiopia.

Fossilized teeth dating back 9.7 million years could 'rewrite' human history
The fossilized remains of two teeth that were discovered last year could lead to a rewriting of human history. (Mainz Natural History Museum)

Scientists were so confused by the find they held off from publishing their research for the past year, Deutsche Welle reports.

Herbert Lutz, director at the Mainz Natural History Museum and head of the research team, told local media: “They are clearly ape teeth. Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim.

“This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery.”

At a press conference announcing the discovery, the mayor of Mainz suggested the find could force scientists to reassess the history of early humans.

“I don’t want to over-dramatize it, but I would hypothesize that we shall have to start rewriting the history of mankind after today,” he said.

Axel von Berg, a local archaeologist, said the new findings would “amaze experts”.

With the first paper on the research having just been published, the “real work” to unlock the mystery is only just beginning, Dr Lutz said.

Although there is abundant fossil evidence that great apes were roaming Europe millions of years ago, there have been no confirmed cases of hominins – species closely related to humans – on the continent.

The current scientific consensus proposes that modern humans evolved out of East Africa somewhere between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, before dispersing around the world as recently as 70,000 years ago.

The teeth will be on display from the end of October at a state exhibition, before heading to Mainz’s Natural History Museum.

The region where the find was made has been an attraction for fossil hunters for almost 200 years.

1.2-Million-Year-Old Obsidian Axe Made By Unknown Human Species Discovered In Ethiopia

1.2-Million-Year-Old Obsidian Axe Made By Unknown Human Species Discovered In Ethiopia

1.2-Million-Year-Old Obsidian Axe Made By Unknown Human Species Discovered In Ethiopia
An obsidian handaxe, made by an unknown hominid 1.2 million years ago.

Forged in magma and capable of producing the sharpest blades on Earth, obsidian is without a doubt one of the most badass materials ever imagined (there’s a reason George RR Martin made it the weapon of choice to kill White Walkers).

The jet-black volcanic glass is also extremely delicate and dangerous to work with, and was not mastered by humans until the latter part of the Stone Age… or so we thought.

Reporting on the latest findings from the Melka Kunture archaeological site in Ethiopia, a team of researchers has described the discovery of an obsidian handaxe workshop within a layer of sediment dated to 1.2 million years ago.

This represents a staggeringly early example of obsidian shaping, and, according to the study authors, is the only handaxe factory ever dated to the Early Pleistocene.

“[Archaeological] sites described as ‘knapping workshops’ are only recorded in the second half of the Middle Pleistocene and only in Europe so far,” write the researchers. Located predominantly in France and the UK, the most notable Stone Age axe workshops were all associated with the creation of flint blades.

“Generally speaking, obsidian is extensively used only from the Middle Stone Age onwards,” write the study authors.

However, during the course of their excavations, the team came across an ancient layer of sediment containing a cache of 578 stone tools, all but three of which were sculpted from obsidian. “We show through statistical analysis that this was a focused activity, that very standardized handaxes were produced and that this was a stone-tool workshop,” they write.

Describing the axes, the researchers repeatedly marvel that “the morphological standardization is remarkable,” and while they don’t know which species of human crafted the tools, they say that whoever created them diligently applied “secondary retouches” and was highly “focused on the final regularization of the artifacts.”

Achieving such homogeneity would have required highly sharpened skills and a fair amount of dexterity, as obsidian is a fragile rock that must be knapped with considerably more finesse than flint or basalt.

“Accordingly, manufacturers had to accurately evaluate the strength of the blow to avoid producing flakes of little use, or just to avoid smashing the core,” explain the researchers.

Techniques for shaping obsidian are believed to have first emerged during the Upper Paleolithic, and even modern knappers wear protective gloves to avoid shredding their hands when working with the razor-sharp material. And yet, when describing tools from over a million years ago, the study authors say that “the standardized obsidian handaxes provide ample evidence of the repetitive use of fully mastered skills.”

The emergence of such abilities marks a surprisingly massive cognitive leap for such an ancient group of humans.

According to the authors, the adaptation of existing flint knapping techniques to create more challenging obsidian tools can be seen as an example of “convergent thinking”, which is associated with creative problem-solving.

Hailing this remarkable achievement, the researchers say the old axe makers “creatively solved through convergent thinking technological problems such as effectively detaching and shaping large flakes of the unusually brittle and cutting volcanic glass.”

All without any protective gloves. Over a million years ago.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

New Dates Obtained for Ethiopia’s Early Christian Churches

New Dates Obtained for Ethiopia’s Early Christian Churches

New Dates Obtained for Ethiopia’s Early Christian Churches
Excavation of one of the early churches found in Adulis, which likely served as the city’s cathedral.

Archaeologists have made an important discovery in the Kingdom of Aksum, a major ancient power in Northeastern Africa, identifying two churches from shortly after the Aksumite’s conversion to Christianity. These are some of the first churches in the Kingdom reliably dated to this key period.

The Aksumite Kingdom ruled much of the northern Horn of Africa in the first millennium AD, stretching from Ethiopia to Arabia, and was an important contemporary of the Roman Empire. Like their Mediterranean neighbor, the Aksumite leader—King Ezana—converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD but securely dated churches from this period are rare.

However, two churches from the important Aksumite port of Adulis, in modern Eritrea, are helping fill this gap.

One is an elaborate cathedral, complete with the remains of a baptistry, that is located near the center of the city and was first excavated in 1868. The other, first excavated in 1907, is in the east and features a ring of columns that show it once had a dome.

Over a hundred years since these churches were first excavated, archaeologists are re-examining these buildings with modern techniques.

Dr. Gabriele Castiglia, from the Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, is part of a team digging them back up and carrying out radiocarbon dating on the site. This new data has allowed them to accurately reconstruct their history, with their findings published in the journal Antiquity.

Excavations at the domed church, revealing a room near the entrance.

“This study provides one of the first examples of Aksumite churches excavated with modern methods and chronological data coming from modern dating methods,” said Dr. Castiglia.

The research revealed construction began on the cathedral between AD 400–535, whilst the domed church was built AD 480–625.

This makes them some of the earliest securely dated churches in the Aksumite Kingdom, and the oldest known outside the capital’s heartlands. This shows a relatively rapid spread of Christianity through the Kingdom of Aksum.

“Having a precise chronology for these churches is key to understanding how the process of conversion to Christianity shaped the geographical and cultural area,” said Dr. Castiglia.

Crucially, the buildings show that the spread of Christianity was not the result of a single factor, like a mandate by King Ezana.

The churches have elements from many traditions, reflecting the diverse influences on the kingdom’s conversion. The domed church, for example, is unique in the Aksumite Kingdom and appears to be inspired by Byzantine churches. Meanwhile, the cathedral is built on a large platform in the Aksumite tradition.

The churches can also shed light on the later arrival of Islam. Adulis underwent a period of gradual decline and the churches eventually fell into disuse.

Dr. Castiglia found that this was not the end of their lives –the cathedral was re-appropriated as a Muslim burial ground. The continued use of existing sacred spaces could indicate the region’s conversion to Islam was also a multicultural phenomenon, with local customs mixed in with the new religion.

“This is one of the first times we have the material evidence of re-appropriation of a Christian sacred space by the Islamic community,” said Dr. Castiglia.

Together, these buildings show the religious history of the Horn of Africa was cosmopolitan, with diverse groups influencing the spread of beliefs.

Fossils that “clearly foreshadow” modern humans are 30,000 years older than we thought

Fossils that “clearly foreshadow” modern humans are 30,000 years older than we thought

The Omo I and Herto fossils, found in East Africa, are the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils yet discovered in the region — but a new study shows they are tens of thousands of years older than we thought. Older studies had dated the Omo I and Herto fossils to 197,000 years old and between 155,000 to 160,000 years old, respectively. They are, in fact, far older.

“The Omo I and Herto specimens are the oldest Homo Sapiens that have been found so far [in the region], so their discovery and their age are critical to understanding the emergence of our species,” Céline Vidal, lead author on the study and a volcanologist at Fitzwilliam College, tells Inverse.

Vidal and her team use ancient volcanic eruptions to date the human fossils. In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, they re-examine the Omo I and Herto fossils in Ethiopia. The findings push back the starting point for human history in eastern Africa by some 36,000 years.

Researchers analyzed pumice rock from an ancient volcanic eruption in the area to determine an updated age for the Omo I fossils.

HOW THEY DID IT — In the past, scientists had used the age of the volcanic ash layer beneath the old bones to infer when the fossils were deposited.

But, “there was some uncertainty on the position of this layer relative to the fossil,” Vidal says.

Unfortunately, the sediment layer above the fossils contains a kind of thick volcanic ash known as KHS; the grains of this kind of ash is too small to accurately date using the current technology — so this layer was no help in trying to narrow down the fossils’ true age. Instead, archaeologists have tried to determine the Omo I and Herto fossils’ ages using the signatures of other past volcanic eruptions in the area.

“While studying big eruptions from the Ethiopian Rift, we identified a colossal eruption of Shala volcano, which occurred some 233,000 years ago,” Vidal says. “The age was obtained from pumice rocks found near the volcano.”

In this study, Vidal’s team used a dating method known as “single crystal argon-argon” dating — in this method, the scientists measure the amount of the element argon in volcanic minerals like ash and pumice rock. This signature allows scientists to pinpoint when the magma originally erupted from the Earth’s surface.

Brian Stewart, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study, tells Inverse that, generally, “single-crystal argon-argon dating is very well established and reliable,” and is “beautifully suited” to studying fossils in eastern Africa due to the history of volcanic eruptions in the area.

“It is a remarkable method because it can go as far back in time as the age of the Earth,” Vidal says. Or, in the case of Vidal’s work: As far back as the time of the oldest modern human beings.

WHAT THEY FOUND — The researchers obtained a more precise minimum age of the Omo I fossils, specifically that they are likely 233,000 years old. It’s worth keeping in mind that the margin of error is pretty significant: Plus or minus 22,000 years — so they may be even older or younger.

“The error margin associated with this new date is obviously very large, and at its upper — younger — margin does not massively change the previous age estimate of the Omo I finds, perhaps moving it back in time by 10-15,000 years,” Stewart says.

If their true age is closer to the median estimated date of 233,000 years — or even older — then the finding is “definitely significant” Stewart adds.

Either way, the Omo I fossil specimens — the oldest known Homo sapiens in eastern Africa — have officially become much, much older. Since some archaeologists believe early modern humans may have originated in this region, that makes the findings all the more significant.

“Our findings push the age of the oldest Homo sapiens to later than 200,000 years,” Vidal says.

Did humans originate in eastern Africa? The updated findings on the date of the Omo I fossils could shift how we think about the evolution of humans on the continent.

WHY IT MATTERS — For too long, the official archaeological date — the age of the oldest known fossils of Homo sapiens from eastern Africa — hasn’t matched up with evolutionary models of human history. Evolutionary models suggest our species arose some 300,000 years ago. The oldest ever Homo sapiens fossils were discovered in Morocco — it is some 300,000 years old.

“The Omo I fossils exhibit traits that much more clearly foreshadow later Homo sapiens than those displayed by what has been proposed as the very earliest specimens in the sapiens lineage: the 300,000-year-old fossil skulls from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco,” Stewart says. The discovery puts the archaeological date of the Omo I fossils in closer proximity to this evolutionary timeline for Homo sapiens.

“This new age constraint is congruent with most models for the evolution of modern humans, which estimate the origin of H. sapiens and its divergence from archaic humans at about 350–200 thousand years ago,” Vidal says.

The findings could help settle another longstanding archaeological debate: Did our species originate in a single area in eastern Africa, or from multiple areas of the continent?

“Current opinions of our species’ origins have shifted away from a single-region African model and towards a multiregional African model,” Stewart says. The updated timeline of the Omo I fossils could shift the thinking about where and how humans evolved in Africa once more, Stewart explains:

“If the more modern-looking Omo specimens turn out to fall squarely within that time envelope, we may need think twice before we toss out a single origin model altogether, especially one that sees our species evolving across a single interconnected region that was much larger than previously imagined.”

WHAT’S NEXT — For now, Vidal and her team are clear: This is far from a definitive conclusion on the origins of humanity. While the study provides an updated “minimum age” for these fossil specimens in eastern Africa, the “maximum age” — i.e., the oldest age of the Omo I humans — is still a mystery.

Also, further research is needed to provide a more accurate age for the Herto fossils — the other significant site of ancient Homo sapiens found in the region.

“We can only date humanity based on the fossils that we have, so it’s impossible to say that this is the definitive age of our species,” Vidal says.

Future fossil findings could very well push the timeline of modern Homo sapiens “even further back in time.”

“The study of human evolution is always in motion; boundaries and timelines change as our understanding improves,” Vidal says.

Abstract: Efforts to date the oldest modern human fossils in eastern Africa, from Omo-Kibish1–3 and Herto4,5 in Ethiopia, have drawn on a variety of chronometric evidence, including 40Ar/39Ar ages of stratigraphically associated tuffs. The ages that are generally reported for these fossils are around 197 thousand years (kyr) for the Kibish Omo I3,6,7, and around 160–155 kyr for the Herto hominins5,8. However, the stratigraphic relationships and tephra correlations that underpin these estimates have been challenged6,8. Here we report geochemical analyses that link the Kamoya’s Hominid Site (KHS) Tuff9, which conclusively overlies the member of the Kibish Formation that contains Omo I, with a major explosive eruption of Shala volcano in the Main Ethiopian Rift. By dating the proximal deposits of this eruption, we obtain a new minimum age for the Omo fossils of 233 ± 22 kyr. Contrary to previous arguments6,8, we also show that the KHS Tuff does not correlate with another widespread tephra layer, the Waidedo Vitric Tuff, and therefore cannot anchor a minimum age for the Herto fossils. Shifting the age of the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils in eastern Africa to before around 200 thousand years ago is consistent with independent evidence for greater antiquity of the modern human lineage.

Ancient city found in Ethiopia sheds new light on the country’s history

Ancient city found in Ethiopia sheds new light on country’s history

Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient, forgotten city in Ethiopia once thought to be the home of giants. The discovery reveals important new information about the origins of international trade and Islam in the country between the 10th and early 15th centuries.

This is the first evidence that proves Eastern Ethiopia was well connected with the Gulf, Egypt and India hundreds of years ago and highlights how skilled craftsmen traded with communities around the world and lived alongside people from different areas around the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

A dig in Harlaa, Eastern Ethiopia, has revealed a 12th-century mosque, evidence of Islamic burials and headstones as well as glass vessel fragments, rock crystal, carnelian, glass beads, imported cowry shells, and pottery from Madagascar, the Maldives, Yemen and China. Archaeologists have found bronze and silver coins from 13th-century Egypt.

A dig in Harlaa, Eastern Ethiopia, has revealed a 12th-century mosque.

There has so far been very little archaeological research carried out in Islamic sites in Ethiopia, with experts more focused on finding early humans in the region.

Archaeologists had not previously carried out extensive work in this part of Ethiopia. Farmers had been uncovering pottery and coins for many years in the area and were convinced there was rich information about Ethiopia’s history to be found underground.

The size of some of the building stones also found created a local legend that the area had been home to giants.

Archaeologists worked with the community for two years to make the discoveries, which will be exhibited in a heritage centre run by local people designed to bring income to the area.

Some findings will be displayed in the country’s national museum in Addis Ababa. The work was completed in partnership with the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

Professor Timothy Insoll, from the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: “This discovery revolutionises our understanding of trade in an archaeologically neglected part of Ethiopia. What we have found shows this area was the centre of trade in that region.

The city was a rich, cosmopolitan centre for jewellery making and pieces were then taken to be sold around the region and beyond. Residents of Harlaa were a mixed community of foreigners and local people who traded with others in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and possibly as far away as the Arabian Gulf.”

Harlaa is 120km from the Red Sea coast and 300km from Addis Adaba. The architecture of the mosque is similar to those found in Southern Tanzania and Somaliland, showing connections between different Islamic communities in Africa.

Remains found in the dig suggest jewellers were making high-quality, delicate pieces in silver, bronze and semi-precious stones and glass beads. They used some technology usually associated in that period with jewellers in India, suggesting trade or immigration from that country to Harlaa.

The settlement, which is around 500m by 1,000m, has buildings and walls constructed with large stone blocks – leading people to assume only those with enormous stature or strength could have built it, and encouraging local legends about giants having inhabited the region.

The remains of some of the 300 people buried in the cemetery are being analysed to see what their diet consisted of.

Professor Insoll said: “The archaeological findings suggest this place was home to a very mixed community. Local people were extremely keen for us to solve mysteries. Farmers had been finding strange objects, including Chinese coins, as they were working on their land, and a legend began that the area was home to giants. We have obviously disproved that, but I’m not sure they fully believe us yet. Some people have said the bodies we have discovered are the children of giants!”

The research is funded by the European Research Council and previously by the Max Van Berchem Foundation in Switzerland.

The archaeologists, from the Universities of Exeter, Addis Ababa and Leuven, will dig again next year, in other sites and deeper underground, to uncover more evidence of people who lived there earlier in history. So far, they have excavated down to a depth of 2.5 metres and dated this to the 6th century.

Professor Insoll said: “We know jewellery was being made here for trading into the African interior, and materials to do this came in from the Red Sea, East African Coast and possibly India, but we don’t know what was given in exchange for that jewellery. During the next stage of our archaeological research in this era, we hope to examine this by working on other sites up to 100km away.”

The earliest human remains in eastern Africa dated to more than 230,000 years ago

Earliest human remains in eastern Africa dated to more than 230,000 years ago

Ancient human fossils discovered in Ethiopia are much older than previously thought, experts claim, saying they could be as much as 230,000 years old. The remains – known as Omo I – were discovered in Ethiopia in the late 1960s, and are one of the oldest known examples of Homo sapiens fossils, with earlier attempts to date them placing them at just under 200,000 years old. However, a new study by the University of Cambridge found that the remains have to pre-date a colossal volcanic eruption in the area, which happened 230,000 years ago. 

To make the discovery the team dated the chemical fingerprints of volcanic ash layers, found above and below sediment where the fossils were discovered. 

The team said that while this pushes the minimum age for Homo sapiens in eastern Africa back by 30,000 years, future studies may extend the age even further. In 2017, archaeologists announced the discovery of the world’s oldest Homo sapiens fossils — a 300,000-year-old skull at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco. 

The Omo Kibish Formation in south western Ethiopia, within the East African Rift valley. The oldest human remains in east Africa date back at least 30,000 years earlier than previously thought to around a quarter of a million years ago
The remains – known as Omo I – were discovered in Ethiopia in the late 1960s, and are one of the oldest known examples of Homo sapiens fossils, with earlier attempts to date them placing them at less than 200,000 years old

To date, the volcanic remains, the team collected pumice rock samples from the volcanic deposits and ground them down to sub-millimetre size. Scientists have been trying to precisely date the oldest fossils in eastern Africa, widely recognised as representing our species, Homo sapiens, ever since they were discovered in the 1960s. Earlier attempts to date them suggested they were less than 200,000 years old.  The Omo I remains were found in the Omo Kibish Formation in southwestern Ethiopia, which sits within the East African Rift valley.  The region is an area of high volcanic activity and a rich source of early human remains and artefacts.

By dating layers of volcanic ash above and below where fossil materials are found, scientists identified Omo I as one of the earliest examples of our species ever found.

‘Using these methods, the generally accepted age of the Omo fossils is under 200,000 years, but there’s been a lot of uncertainty around this date,’ said Dr Céline Vidal from Cambridge’s Department of Geography, the paper’s lead author. 

‘The fossils were found in a sequence, below a thick layer of volcanic ash that nobody had managed to date because the ash is too fine-grained.’

The four-year project, led by British volcanologist Professor Clive Oppenheimer. is attempting to date all major volcanic eruptions in the Ethiopian Rift. Each eruption has its own fingerprint – its own evolutionary story below the surface, which is determined by the pathway the magma followed,’ said Dr Vidal. 

‘Once you’ve crushed the rock, you free the minerals within, and then you can date them, and identify the chemical signature of the volcanic glass that holds the minerals together.’

The researchers carried out a geochemical analysis on the crushed rock to link the fingerprint of the volcanic ash, from the Kamoya Hominin Site, with an eruption of Shala volcano.  The team then dated pumice samples from the volcano, 250 miles from the site the human remains were discovered, to 230,000 years ago.  Since the Omo I fossils was found deeper than this particular ash layer, they must be more than 230,000 years old, the team explained.

‘First I found there was a geochemical match, but we didn’t have the age of the Shala eruption,’ said Vidal.

‘I immediately sent the samples of Shala volcano to our colleagues in Glasgow so they could measure the age of the rocks. 

When I received the results and found out that the oldest Homo sapiens from the region was older than previously assumed, I was really excited. Professor Asfawossen Asrat, a co-author of the study from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, said: ‘The Omo Kibish Formation is an extensive sedimentary deposit which has been barely accessed and investigated in the past. Our closer look into the stratigraphy of the Omo Kibish Formation, particularly the ash layers, allowed us to push the age of the oldest Homo sapiens in the region to at least 230,000 years.

The team said that while this pushes the minimum age for Homo sapiens in eastern Africa back by 30,000 years, future studies may extend the age even further
To date the volcanic remains, the team collected pumice rock samples from the volcanic deposits and ground them down to sub-millimetre size
Scientists have been trying to precisely date the oldest fossils in eastern Africa widely recognised as representing our species, Homo sapiens, ever since they were discovered in the 1960s

Unlike other Middle Pleistocene fossils which are thought to belong to the early stages of the Homo sapiens lineage, Omo I possesses unequivocal modern human characteristics, according to co-author Dr Aurélien Mounier, from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

He gave the example of a ‘tall and globular cranial vault and a chin’, before claiming that the new date estimate made the remains ‘the oldest unchallenged Homo sapiens in Africa. Until the Jebel Irhous discovery four years ago, most researchers believed that all humans living today descended from a population that lived in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. 

‘We can only date humanity based on the fossils that we have, so it’s impossible to say that this is the definitive age of our species,’ said Vidal.  The study of human evolution is always in motion: boundaries and timelines change as our understanding improves.  But these fossils show just how resilient humans are: that we survived, thrived and migrated in an area that was so prone to natural disasters. It’s probably no coincidence that our earliest ancestors lived in such a geologically active rift valley – it collected rainfall in lakes, providing fresh water and attracting animals, and served as a natural migration corridor stretching thousands of kilometres,’ said Oppenheimer. 

The volcanoes provided fantastic materials to make stone tools and from time to time we had to develop our cognitive skills when large eruptions transformed the landscape. Our forensic approach provides a new minimum age for Homo sapiens in eastern Africa, but the challenge still remains to provide a cap, a maximum age, for their emergence, which is widely believed to have taken place in this region,’ said co-author Professor Christine Lane, head of the Cambridge Tephra Laboratory. 

The Omo I remains were found in the Omo Kibish Formation in southwestern Ethiopia, which sits within the East African Rift valley

It’s possible that new finds and new studies may extend the age of our species even further back in time. There are many other ash layers we are trying to correlate with eruptions of the Ethiopian Rift and ash deposits from other sedimentary formations,’ said Vidal. ‘In time, we hope to better constrain the age of other fossils in the region.’

The findings have been published in the journal Nature.

What is the oldest-known archaeological site in the world?

What is the oldest-known archaeological site in the world?

Our human ancestors were roaming Earth as far back as 6 million years ago, but what is the earliest site containing archaeological evidence of their existence? 

It turns out, there are two spots — one in Kenya and the other in Ethiopia — that are considered the top candidates for the world’s oldest archaeological sites, according to about a dozen scholars, all with expertise in prehistoric archaeology and anthropology, who spoke with Live Science. 

The question of what is the oldest archaeological site in the world is “a topic that has since recently divided the archaeological community,” Yonatan Sahle, a senior lecturer of archaeology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, told Live Science in an email. 

The first site, called Lomekwi 3, holds bones of hominins as well as stone artefacts and is located on a low hill in West Turkana, Kenya. In a study published in 2015 in the journal Nature, researchers reported that, by dating the sediment where the artefacts were found, they estimated the age of the site to be about 3.3 million years.

The finds “mark a new beginning to the known archaeological record,” a team of scientists wrote in the journal article. The tools were likely created by Australopithecus afarensis, a hominin (human ancestors and their relatives) that thrived in the region at the time. 

The site is located in a wooded area on a small hill not far from Lake Turkana. It’s possible that Australopithecus afarensis was using the stone artefacts to break open nuts the team wrote in the paper. The number of people who lived at the site at any given time is not clear. 

“Lomekwi 3 is the oldest known archaeological site in the world,” Jason Lewis, assistant director of the Turkana Basin Institute and a co-author of the paper, told Live Science in an email. 

Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College who was not involved in the study, agreed that Lomekwi 3 is the oldest known archaeological site, but he noted that not all scholars agree. “Lomekwi is controversial, and some of our colleagues remain unconvinced of the antiquity of these tools,” DeSilva told Live Science. 

Indeed, a number of recent papers “call into question the status of the artefacts at Lomekwi 3, arguing that some of the artefacts were not actually found in a context where the age of the artefacts can be certain,” David Braun, an anthropology professor at The George Washington University, told Live Science. In other words, the artefacts may not date to the same time as the sediment that it was found in.

Sahle is one of those archaeologists. “For many of us — myself included — unequivocal evidence for the oldest archaeological occurrences comes in the form of 2.6-million-year-old stone tools from Gona,” which is located by the Kada Gona river in Afar, Ethiopia, Sahle said. The dating results for Lomekwi 3 are contested, he noted, and he has serious doubts that the remains found at that site date back 3.3 million years. 

The research at Lomekwi 3 was published relatively recently, whereas research at Gona has been published over several decades and has withstood academic scrutiny, Sahle said. “Inferences made on the chronological and behavioural context of [the] Gona archaeological assemblages derive from decades of research and have, therefore, withstood the test of time,” Sahle said. 

A stone tool was unearthed at the Lomekwi 3 excavation site next to Lake Turkana in Kenya.

The stone tools at Gona may have been made by Australopithecus Garhi, a human ancestor that lived in east Africa around 2.5 million years ago. Fossils of the species have been found near stone tools and they may have been one of the first human ancestors to make sophisticated stone tools Smithsonian’s Human Origins project website notes.

“The Lomekwi claims were not adequately demonstrated when announced, and there has [been] no new evidence provided, despite several well-considered criticisms of the original Nature announcement,” said Tim White, co-director of the Human Evolution Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. White agrees that Gona has the best unequivocal evidence for being the oldest archaeological site.

On the other hand, some scholars are supportive of the idea that Lomekwi is older than Gona. Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, is convinced that Lomekwi 3 “is the oldest site with solid evidence of stone-on-stone percussion,” meaning that it’s the oldest site that has stone artefacts made by human ancestors. He noted that the stone artefacts at Lomekwi 3 appear different from those found at Gona; they are cruder and may not have been used as tools at all. The stone artefacts at Lomekwi 3 “show awkward fracturing of the rocks, including large, thick, irregularly shaped flakes that could have been the accidental byproducts of pounding — for what purpose, no one currently knows,” Potts wrote in an email, noting that people at Lomekwi 3 may not have been creating tools but rather pounding rocks together for unknown reasons. Even if the Lomekwi 3 artefacts weren’t used as tools, they would still be considered artefacts created by humans. 

Brian Villmoare, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, told Live Science, “I do tend to think that Australopithecus afarensis could have made stone tools,” but he noted that he has not examined the Lomekwi 3 artefacts. 

A third candidate?

Braun said that if future fieldwork cannot alleviate concerns about the dating of Lomekwi 3, his second choice for the oldest archaeological site would be Ledi-Geraru in Afar, Ethiopia, which dates back about 2.8 million years.

The earliest-known fossil from the Homo genus, this piece of the jawbone, was discovered at a site called Ledi-Geraru in the Afar Regional State, Ethiopia.

At Ledi-Geraru, researchers found a partial hominin mandible with teeth, and they dated it by examining the age of the surrounding sediment, they reported in the journal Science in 2015.  Sahle expressed doubts about the dating of this site, saying that it may be considerably younger than 2.8 million years and that Gona is the site with the best unequivocal evidence. 

Regardless of which of these archaeological sites is the oldest, all of them make the Giza pyramids (which are about 4,500 years old) and Stonehenge (which is roughly 5,000 years old) relatively young by comparison.