Monday, June 20, 2011


Last year, while a Penn team of archaeologists, led by Harold Dibble, was working in Morocco,members uncovered a treasure beyond anything they'd imagined - a skeleton of a child from 108,000 years ago.

They don't know what killed him at about age 8, but his remains are believed to be one of the most complete ever found of this period.

The skeleton promises to open a window into a pivotal time in human evolution when Neanderthals still ruled Europe, and Africans were inventing art and symbolic thought.

One of Dibble's students was the first to notice a piece of bone the size of a quarter, said Dibble, who is a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. To everyone's surprise, the bone was part of a remarkably complete skull and upper body of a child that died 108,000 years ago, as shown by various dating techniques.

The work was funded by National Geographic, whose cable channel will present a special program based on the finding, titled The World's Oldest Child.

From analyzing the teeth, Dibble's team estimated he or she was 6 to 8 years old. Dibble bestowed the name Bouchra, meaning good news in Arabic. It's a feminine name, but he has since decided it's more likely to have been a boy.

In that earlier time, 108,000 years ago, modern Homo sapiens - people who looked like us - had emerged in Africa and begun to spread to the Middle East. Neanderthals populated parts of Eurasia. Africa was thought to be a patchwork of so-called modern Homo sapiens and somewhat different-looking "archaic humans."

The Moroccan site, called Smuggler's Cave, was home to a group of people who ate rabbits, gazelles, and seafood, and made some of the world's earliest art in the form of shell beads, Dibble said.

The only earlier evidence for art is the use of ochre pigments in southern Africa, he said. Neanderthal people by that period had begun to bury their dead, but left no evidence for any form of symbolic communication or art.

The child had bigger teeth than a person would have today - a trait that's also seen in some of the first modern humans to venture out of Africa. "They looked like us but not exactly like us," Dibble said. Archaic people had somewhat different features - including a brow ridge or lack of a chin. But they may have been ancestral to us since these populations were capable of interbreeding.


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