Planet Earth

When Did Homo Sapiens First Appear?

Determining when the first modern human emerged on the scene is tricky.

By Nathaniel ScharpingMay 15, 2020 10:00 AM
Jebel Irhoud 1. Homo Sapiens
A composite reconstruction of one of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from a site in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, based on micro-computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils. (Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig/CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

The oldest Homo sapiens fossils that anthropologists have found thus far date to around 315,000 years ago. That means we can say that modern humans are at least that old. But our lineage likely extends further back in time — we just don’t have the fossils to prove it.

DNA evidence drawn from comparisons of different human genomes, as well as those of close cousins like Neanderthals and Denisovans, put the split between the three groups at at least 400,000 years ago. So it’s possible that H. sapiens is over half a million years old.

But there are some pernicious difficulties when it comes to assigning fossils to species or lineages in anthropology. It can be difficult to say when exactly a species began, because one species does not evolve into another overnight. Instead, it is a gradual process, often punctuated by interbreeding events between groups that can muddy the waters. Humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred at multiple points in our history, for example.

So, saying exactly when the first H. sapiens was born is pretty much impossible. But, with more fossils finds and better DNA evidence, we’ll be able to narrow down the range of when modern humans likely appeared.


This story is part of an ongoing series exploring questions about human origins. Read more about ancient humans:

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Magazine Examples
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!

Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2021 Kalmbach Media Co.