Partnerships give opportunities at archeological ‘ground zero’ for understanding human life

Photo of MSU delegation in Morocco

Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, left, director of Morocco’s Institut National des Sciences de l'Archéologie et du Patrimoine, poses with one of the country’s many significant archeological finds and visitors from Mississippi State University. The MSU delegation included Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Peter Ryan, second from left, and MSU Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures faculty members Jimmy Hardin and Shane Miller.

Mississippi State University is developing new partnerships with the Moroccan institute that oversees one of the world’s most important archeological sites, creating potential opportunities for MSU students and researchers in the African nation.

During a recent trip to Morocco, faculty from MSU’s Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures met with leaders of the Institut National des Sciences de l'Archéologie et du Patrimoine, or INSAP, to discuss collaborations that could benefit from complementary strengths in the field of archeology. INSAP is currently in charge of the Jebel Irhoud site, where in 2017, archeologists discovered the world’s oldest known homo sapien remains.

The remains found at Jebel Irhoud date back to more than 300,000 years ago, providing a different context for early humans both in terms of time and location, explained Jimmy Hardin, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures. The earliest homo sapiens previously were found in sites in southern Africa, dating back 200,000-250,000 years. Now, the oldest are found in Morocco, at the northwest edge of the continent.

“They’ve been dated with different technologies that all agree, so it’s a well-dated context,” Hardin said. “So instead of something happening in a pocket of Africa, it looks like it was pancontinental. The earliest skeletal evidence of humans comes out of Morocco now, so it’s sort of ground zero for understanding us.”

INSAP oversees the preservation of Morocco’s cultural heritage and serves as the primary educational training ground for Moroccan anthropologists and archeologists. The institute is led by Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, who was among the INSAP officials to meet with an MSU delegation in Morocco. The meeting was made possible by officials from the Université Internationale de Rabat, which has a long-standing relationship with MSU.

During the meeting, Ben-Ncer showed the MSU delegation one of the partial skulls that has made international news.

“The fact that he was willing to share that with us was a very unique thing,” Hardin said. “I love the idea of our students going there and training with them and then their students having the opportunity to come here, similar to what the Bagley College of Engineering has been doing with UIR. We’re also working to create opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to study abroad there through UIR.”

Hardin noted that INSAP officials were interested in MSU’s expertise in geospatial information systems, landscape archeology, systematic surveying and DNA analysis.

“Morocco sees themselves in many ways as a gateway between Africa and Europe,” Hardin said. “Geographically, it makes sense. This place is a crossroads. The opportunities for us to grow as scholars, for our students to be able to broaden their perspective and to participate in these projects, not just in our backyard, but in other places, are fantastic.”

In addition to Hardin, the MSU delegation included Hsain Ilahiane, head of the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, and assistant professor Shane Miller. The group, along with MSU Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Peter Ryan, also met with Morcco’s minister of culture and communication, Mohammed El Araj, who gave his blessing to MSU’s partnerships with INSAP and UIR.

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James Carskadon | Public Affairs

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