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Study: Odd skulls from oldest modern humans

By Richard Stenger

The Herto skulls from Ethiopia date back about 160,000 years.
The Herto skulls from Ethiopia date back about 160,000 years.

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CNN's Ann Kellan says the discovery of skull fossils in Ethiopia are thought to be of a human ancestor from about 160,000 years ago (June 11)
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(CNN) -- Three skulls unearthed in Ethiopia, pocked with mysterious cuts, represent the oldest known evidence of modern humans, according to a new study in Nature.

The fossilized craniums, which are estimated to be 160,000 years old, have a previously unseen combination of primitive and modern features, paleontologists involved in the excavation said.

Classified as a new subspecies of Homo sapiens, the remains help boost the theory that modern man came from Africa, according to the group, led by scientists from the University of California, Berkeley.

"They ... represent the probable immediate ancestors of anatomically modern humans. Their anatomy and antiquity constitute strong evidence of modern-human emergence in Africa," wrote Berkeley researcher Tim White and colleagues in Nature.

The international team found the skulls in the eroding, sandy sediments of an ancient river in Herto, a village about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northeast of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

At a time when Europe was frozen in an Ice Age, the Herto hominids enjoyed the good life, living beside a freshwater lake that teemed with hippopotamus and fish.

The scientists stumbled onto the location in 1999 when White spied a butchered hippo skull, leftovers from a prehistoric meal.

start quote[These are] some of the most significant discoveries of early Homo sapiens so far.end quote
-- Paleontologist Chris Stringer

"The associated fossil bones show clearly that the Herto people had a taste for hippos, but we can't tell whether they were killing them or scavenging them," said team archeologist Yonas Beyene of Ethiopia's Authority for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage.

During the next three years, the team uncovered, reconstructed and analyzed skulls from two adults and one child, bone fragments from seven others, Stone Age tools and more fossilized meals.

The remains are "some of the most significant discoveries of early Homo sapiens so far," said Chris Stringer, a paleontologist not involved in the study, in a companion Nature article.

One of the most intriguing characteristics of the skulls was a pattern of deliberate and repeated cut marks. Additionally, the child's skull had polished sides, possibly from repeated handling.

"These marks differ in placement and orientation from those that were made by defleshing with stone tools. They reveal some form of ancient mortuary practice," the scientists said in a statement.

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