Tuesday May 22, 2018

Discovery of 300,000-year-old Moroccan Fossils Shake Up Understanding of Human Origins

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Moroccan Fossils
Discovery of 300,000-year-old Moroccan Fossils: A composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, based on micro computed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils, is shown in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters, June 7, 2017. VOA
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  • Scientists determined that skulls, limb bones and teeth representing at least five individuals were about 300,000 years old
  • The antiquity of the fossils was startling – a “big wow,” as one of the researchers called it
  • The Moroccan fossils, found in what was a cave setting, represented three adults, one adolescent and one child roughly age 8

The understanding of human origins was turned on its head on Wednesday with the announcement of the discovery of fossils unearthed on a Moroccan hillside that are about 100,000 years older than any other known remains of our species, Homo sapiens.

Scientists determined that skulls, limb bones and teeth representing at least five individuals were about 300,000 years old, a blockbuster discovery in the field of anthropology.

The antiquity of the fossils was startling – a “big wow,” as one of the researchers called it. But their discovery in North Africa, not East or even sub-Saharan Africa, also defied expectations. And the skulls, with faces and teeth matching people today but with archaic and elongated braincases, showed our brain needed more time to evolve its current form.

Dr. Jean-Jacques Hublin points out the new finds at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters, June 7, 2017.
Dr. Jean-Jacques Hublin points out the new finds at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters, June 7, 2017. VOA

“This material represents the very root of our species,” said paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who helped lead the research published in the journal Nature.

Before the discovery at the site called Jebel Irhoud, located between Marrakech and Morocco’s Atlantic coast, the oldest Homo sapiens fossils were known from an Ethiopian site called Omo Kibish, dated to 195,000 years ago.

“The message we would like to convey is that our species is much older than we thought and that it did not emerge in an Adamic way in a small ‘Garden of Eden’ somewhere in East Africa. It is a pan-African process and more complex scenario than what has been envisioned so far,” Hublin said.

The Moroccan fossils, found in what was a cave setting, represented three adults, one adolescent and one child roughly age 8, thought to have lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

These were found alongside bones of animals including gazelles and zebras that they hunted, stone tools perhaps used as spearheads and knives, and evidence of extensive fire use.

Two views of a composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, based on microcomputed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils, are shown in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters, June 7, 2017.
Two views of a composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, based on microcomputed tomographic scans of multiple original fossils, are shown in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters, June 7, 2017. VOA

An analysis of stone flints heated up in the ancient fires let the scientists calculate the age of the adjacent human fossils, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Shannon McPherron said.

There is broad agreement among scientists that Homo sapiens originated in Africa. These findings suggest a complex evolutionary history probably involving the entire continent, with Homo sapiens by 300,000 years ago dispersed all over Africa.

Morocco was an unexpected place for such old fossils considering the location of other early human remains. Based on the shape and age of the Moroccan fossils, the researchers concluded that a mysterious, previously discovered 260,000-year-old partial cranium from Florisbad, South Africa also represented Homo sapiens.

The Jebel Irhoud people had large braincases that lacked the globular shape of those today. Max Planck Institute paleoanthropologist Philipp Gunz said the findings indicate the shape of the face was established early in the history of Homo sapiens, but brain shape, and perhaps brain function, evolved later.

But given their modern-looking face and teeth, Hublin said, these people may have blended in today if they simply wore a hat.

Homo sapiens is now the only human species, but 300,000 years ago it would have shared the planet with several now-extinct cousins in Eurasia – Neanderthals in the west and Denisovans in the east – and others in Africa.

Hublin did not hazard a guess as to how long ago the very first members of our species appeared, but said it could not have been more than 650,000 years ago, when the evolutionary lineage that led to Homo sapiens split from the one that led to the Neanderthals. (VOA)

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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

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Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

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Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)