Efforts to date the oldest modern human fossils in eastern Africa, from Omo-Kibish1,2,3 and Herto4,5 in Ethiopia, have drawn on a variety of chronometric evidence, including 40Ar/39Ar
ages of stratigraphically associated tuffs. The ages that are generally
reported for these fossils are around 197 thousand years (kyr) for the
Kibish Omo I3,6,7, and around 160–155 kyr for the Herto hominins5,8. However, the stratigraphic relationships and tephra correlations that underpin these estimates have been challenged6,8. Here we report geochemical analyses that link the Kamoya’s Hominid Site (KHS) Tuff9,
which conclusively overlies the member of the Omo-Kibish Formation that
contains Omo I, with a major explosive eruption of Shala volcano in the
Main Ethiopian Rift. By dating the proximal deposits of this eruption,
we obtain a new minimum age for the Omo fossils of 233 ± 22 kyr.
Contrary to previous arguments6,8,
we also show that the KHS Tuff does not correlate with another
widespread tephra layer, the Waidedo Vitric Tuff, and therefore cannot
anchor a minimum age for the Herto fossils. Shifting the age of the
oldest known Homo sapiens fossils in eastern Africa to before
around 200 thousand years ago is consistent with independent evidence
for greater antiquity of the modern human lineage10.