Ras Tefari Makkonnen (Haile Selassie) claimed direct descent from the illicit liaison between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, several millennia before his reign over Ethiopia. Now, “everyone knows” that we are all descended from a single African woman who lived about 120 to 150 thousand years ago – only the line of descent from her proved continually fertile and survived until now. So, it is perhaps fitting that the earliest known remains of properly modern human beings have emerged from the soil of Ethiopia, in the highly fossiliferous sediments associated with the Awash river that drains into the Afar Depression. The cover of Nature (12 June 2003) shows a forensic reconstruction from a male skull found at Herto Bouri, and it bears an uncanny resemblance to the handsome fellows who roam with their herds in modern Afar. There the resemblance stops, for the Afar are not truly African but hale from Arabia, as do many other Ethiopians. These human fossils are 160 thousand years old, and may be contemporary with “African Eve”, or even earlier. The issue of “modernity”, as with others based on anatomical features in incomplete fossil remains, is a bone destined to be gnawed at continually. The discovering team was led by Tim White of the University of California, who regular readers of Earth Pages News will recall came up with the shocking suggestion that deformation of hominid remains could underlie a profligate splitting of human evolution since 4 Ma into many species, some of which might be spurious, even capricious (Ancestral lines squashed?, in EPN of May 2003). The central feature of the well-preserved and undeformed Herto fossils is that they look modern, yet pre-date the classic Neanderthals of Europe (White, T.D. and 6 others 2003. Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia. Nature, v. 423, p. 742-747). The paper shows nicely, by photographic comparison, how the 160 ka humans lie between the more heavily browed archaic H. sapiens from Ethiopia and Zimbabwe (ca 500 ka) and 100 ka humans from Israel. However, statistical plots show graphically the limited number of specimens that palaeoanthropologists have to grapple with, even for relatively recent hominids. Modern as they appear, the Herto fossils lie outside the spread of morphologies gleaned from anatomical studies of Holocene humans. But they do have an astonishingly human characteristic.
All three crania, two adult males and an infant, show clear signs of cut marks (Clark, J.D. and 12 others 2003. Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia. Nature, v. 423, p. 747-752). It appears as if the heads of the individuals were cleaned of any skin and flesh, probably by scraping with extremely sharp obsidian blades. The infant cranium is also polished, as if it had been carried around for a long period. Since the markings are very different from those produced by preparing carcasses for eating, and in any case only the brain is a substantial object for cannibalism of a human head, these marks must signify some post-mortem ritual.