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Palaeontologists in Ethiopia have unearthed the oldest known fossils of modern humans. The discovery supports the idea that Homo sapiens originated in Africa.

In two papers published in the journal Nature, Tim White from the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues describe three fossilised skulls from Ethiopia that are around 160,000 years old. The mixture of primitive and modern features suggests that they are probably immediate ancestors of today's humans.

The findings are "some of the most significant discoveries of early Homo sapiens so far," says Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum, United Kingdom, in an accompanying News and Views article in Nature. In addition to human fossils, the researchers also found Stone Age tools, as well as bones from antelopes that were probably butchered by humans. And the skulls themselves carry cut marks that seem to indicate deliberate mortuary practices.

Link to Nature research paper Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia

Link to Nature research paper Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia

Link to News and Views article by Chris Stringer

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