02/10/2017 15:35 SAST | Updated 10/10/2017 12:55 SAST

UJ Study Proves Humans Are Much Older Than We Think

They reconstructed a full genome of the Ballito Bay child.

Dr Helena Malmström of Uppsala University sampling for ancient human DNA.

Paleoanthropologists from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) have uncovered secrets from the Ballito Bay child fossils -– first discovered in Durban, South Africa -- that indicate modern humans are much older than initially thought.

"Up until now the understanding of humans and evolution of Homo sapiens was always believed to have started at around 200,000 years ago, but based on these individuals we can now show that Homo sapiens split off possibly as far back as 350,000 years ago," Stephanie Edwards Baker, lab manager at UJ's Centre of Anthropological Research, told HuffPost SA.

What this basically means is that our species is much older than we previously thought.

Edwards Baker is part of a team led by world-renowned paleoanthropologist Professor Marlize Lombard. Lombard presented her groundbreaking research into the genetic origins of the Ballito Bay child in the latest edition of "Science", a peer-reviewed journal.

Lombard, along with a team of scientists located in Uppsala, Sweden, reconstructed a full genome of the Ballito Bay child, discovering that the split between modern humans and earlier human groups occurred between 350,000 and 260,000 years ago.

"What this basically means is that our species is much older than we previously thought and now we can begin asking what can be attributed to whom, especially when it comes to tools discovered around the time of the first Homo sapiens," Edwards Baker said.

The physiology of these early humans is similar to what we find in our species today, though with slightly different evolutionary developments, Edwards Baker explained.

"What we consider archaic Homo sapiens -- the same species as you and I -- have an older, less evolved body structure, not unlike Homo naledi. This was moving to a more upright posture, with shorter arms and longer legs, but still smaller than modern humans," she said.

"These were hunter-gatherers who had to forage not only for meat, grass and grains, but also for raw materials to make tools out of, so the hand structure is very different to what you see in modern groups today. Theirs are much larger than modern humans."

The team is studying inland areas, such as the Highveld, to see what links can be found between the discoveries in the area and that of the coastal Homo sapiens.