A New Face From Africa

To Michelangelo, eve was a lovely brunette; to Rodin, a voluptuous temptress. To scientists, the matriarch's face has been more elusive. In 1987 geneticists suspected that a 160,000-year-old "African Eve" of sorts was the last common ancestor of modern humans, "but without data from the fossil record, no one knew what she looked like," says University of California, Berkeley, paleontologist Tim White.

Now we do. Last week in the journal Nature, White's team announced that three skulls--from a man, a child and an adult of uncertain gender, from Afar in Ethiopia--dated to the same era as African Eve's, making them the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils. They look entirely modern, though subtle differences earned them the subspecies name idaltu ("elder").

The skulls demolish the notion that humans evolved on several continents, interbreeding with Neanderthals, and support the "only in Africa" theory. But they raise new questions. The skulls were separated from the bodies; the child's had even been cracked open. Signs of cannibalism? Or, given apparently decorative scratches on the male skull, a belief in life after death? Says White: "This is where the real mystery comes in."