Anthropological research into the origins of man

Skull of a Homo Sapiens found in Jebel Irhoud (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A cultural anthropologist concerns himself with culture. How do people live? What do they believe? And why do they do things in the way that they do? You can of course find the answers by asking them. Or you can discover them for yourself by living for a time with the people you are studying. That is known as participative observation, the main anthropological study method. But what do you do if your interest lies in people who lived in the past? A very long time in the past, such as 4,500 years ago, for instance, when the hunebed builders lived in Drenthe; or even 200,000 years ago when man first developed?


To find out more about the hunebed builders, archaeologists study the objects which these people left behind. One legacy of the hunebed builders which is of course immediately apparent is the hunebeds themselves, which can be found throughout the province of Drenthe. But researchers have also found objects such as flint tools and the distinctive pottery which gave its name to these people – the Funnel Beaker Culture. From examining these finds, certain assumptions have been made about the way in which these people lived.

Image: Decorated pottery of the so-called Funnel Beaker Culture to which the hunebed builders belonged [source:]
But the further we go back in time, the more difficult it becomes to find remains. On the one hand because people were less developed and so used fewer tools and objects, and on the other hand because the chance of finding anything in the ground diminishes with the passage of time.

Anthropology, archaeology and palaeo-anthropology

Anthropology is the study of people and all aspects of human life in relation to other people. For instance in terms of their language, religion, burial rituals or use of medicines. It is a very broad field of study and the American Anthropological Association divides it into four areas of research:

1. Archaeology is the study of societies in the past, through the medium of objects left behind by the people of these societies.
2. Biological Anthropology is the study of man as a biological organism and how people adapt to different environments. This includes palaeo-anthropology, which is the study of the origins and evolution of man.
3. Linguistic Anthropology is the study of the development and use of language and the relation between language and culture.
4. Social Anthropology or Cultural Anthropology is the study of the social life of social groups. How people lived in different parts of the world and how they viewed the world.



So what about research into people who lived thousands of years ago, the ancestors of modern man? Palaeo-anthropology is the study of the origin and evolution of man, partly through the medium of artefacts and fossils but also by using modern techniques such as DNA research. An essential element is the correct dating of finds, because that is the only way in which the timeline from the origin of man right up to modern man can be accurately filled in.
Many different dating methods can be used, preferably and if possible simultaneously, in order to be as certain as possible of the results. Nevertheless it sometimes happens that the age of a certain find can only be confirmed after later research. And sometimes that has far-reaching consequences for the conclusions which were originally drawn. Such is the case with remains found in Morocco in the 1960’s, which have recently been the subject of new research.

Jebel Irhoud

The remains, including pieces of skull and stone tools, were found in Jebel Irhoud which lies approximately 100 km to the northwest of Marrakech. The researchers thought that they were dealing with the remains of Neanderthals but dating of the finds proved difficult because it was not clear in which layer of the ground they had been found.


Image: The site at Jebel Irhoud [source: Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig, License: CC-BY-SA 2.0) –]
Archaeologists had carried out new excavations in the old site and once again they had found stone tools, parts of skulls and further evidence of the use of fire. They also made a new study of objects which had been found earlier. Study of the stone tools resulted in a more precise dating, from which it appeared that the remains were possibly far older than had been thought, namely 300,000 years, and came from Homo sapiens (Hublin et. al. 2017). That is sensational because, until then, the oldest fossil evidence for Homo sapiens had been found in Ethiopia and was 195,000 years old (McDougall et. al. 2005). Based on these finds, palaeo-anthropologists now think that the evolution of modern man probably began much earlier than previously thought and was spread more widely over Africa than appeared from earlier research (Greshko, 2017).


Greshko, M. (2017). Early man is twice as old as previously thought. National Geographic, 8 June 2017 (National Geographic).
Hublin, J.J. et. al. (2017). New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature, 546 (7657): 289 – 292.
McDougall, I., Brown, F.H. & Fleagle, J.G. (2005). Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia. Nature, 433 (7027): 733 –736.

Tekst Marike Goossens

Translation Alun Harvey


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