Anthropology: In The Face Of History

To Michelangelo, Eve was a lovely brunette; to Rodin, she was a voluptuous temptress. But to scientists, the human matriarch's face has always been elusive. In 1987 geneticists concluded that an "African Eve" of sorts, who lived 160,000 years ago, was the last common ancestor of all humans. But the sands had yielded nothing from that period. "Without data from the fossil record," says Berkeley paleontologist Tim White, "no one knew what she looked like."

Now we do. Last week White's team announced that three human skulls had been dated to precisely the same era as African Eve's, give or take a few millennia. They are by far the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils. The skulls are at first glance indistinguishable from those on our own necks. Their brains are large, in one case bigger than any of ours. By virtue of their age, they effectively demolish "multiregionalism," a theory by which humans evolved in relatively isolated patches around the globe. Instead, the finding confirms that humanity arose in Africa only.

Like so many fossils, though, the skulls raise more questions than they answer. For instance: where are their bodies? No other human bones were found with them, indicating that the skulls were removed--and in one case broken open, offering easy access to the brain. To some, that's a clear sign of cannibalism. But White thinks they may also show the first evidence that humans were "thinking about life after death." Strange scratches on one skull may be "some kind of decoration," he says. If that's true, Eve and her counterparts may have been even more modern than we knew.

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