Spring 2009. Dr Harold Dibble and a crew of archaeologists and students dig in the ancient soil of a small cave known as La Grotte des Contrebandiers near the Moroccan coast. As in previous seasons here and elsewhere, Dibble’s team is looking for lithics – ancient stone tools created by people who died tens of thousands of years ago. But this year, they will find something quite different. A human skull.
For Dibble it is a first. Prehistoric human skulls are extremely rare. Even more unusual – based on the size of this specimen it appears to be a child. Quite simply, it’s the find of a lifetime.
The archaeological team can’t even tell if the child was a boy or girl, though they opt to call it ‘Bouchra’, a feminine name meaning ‘good news’. But celebration quickly gives way to worry. Dibble treats every artefact he discovers with the utmost care, but now the science world is watching – the pressure is on. Our cameras are there to record as the skull is carefully excavated from the soil.
The sediments Bouchra is buried in indicate that she lived between 100,000 and 108,000 years ago. It’s a critical era in our history. Through archaeological discoveries we can trace our evolution over millions of years up to around 200,000 years ago – that’s when skeletons like our own first appear. But these early people were not completely like us just yet – they still exhibit the primitive behaviours of earlier species. We don’t have evidence of people similar to us until about 150,000 years later, when genetic regression studies indicate the group of people we are all descended from today still lived in Africa, just about to expand beyond the continent and populate the world.
But scientists have struggled to figure out what came in the 150,000 years between those two eras. At some point that primitive species with a skeleton like ours became the globe-trotting creatures we are today. The best guess? Brains.
Not the physical size of our brains though. Instead, it’s the way we think. Modern thought, our ability to plan ahead, think abstractly and create symbols and art – all of this is unique to our species. No other creature before us thought like we do, not even those primitive folks who first appeared with our skeleton. But we have no idea when, or where, this new way of thinking first appeared. After all, thoughts can’t get preserved in stone.
Bouchra falls right in the middle of this mystery period. Could it be that she was part of the transition between the old way of thinking and the new mental capabilities of our modern day species? To prove it the team will need to dig deeper. As they do, a talented paleoartist in New York will attempt to reconstruct Bouchra’s ancient face from nothing more than a CT scan of the fragments of her skull buried in the dirt. If the two groups are successful, we will know not only what this child looked like, but also if she exhibited a modern level of thought unique to our species.