HOMO ERECTUS AND THEORIES AND CONTROVERSIES ABOUT THE EARLIEST HOMINIDS IN CHINA

HOMINIDS IN CHINA

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Homo erectus
Evidence has been found of early paleolithic hominids living in China more than 1 million years ago. The remains of Homo erectus (Peking Man or Sinanthropus pekinensis), found southwest of Beijing in 1927, date from around 700,000 years ago. Hominids are early forms of humans. Until recently scientists believed that man evolved in Africa and didn't leave that continent until 1.5 million years ago and the first hominid to arrive in Asia and Europe was Homo erectus, a species which includes the famous Java Man and Peking Man. Now scientists working in China and elsewhere in Asia are challenging these theories.

The discovery of 1.7-million-year-old hominid fossils in Georgia that were not Homo erectus and redating of the Java Man Homo erectus fossils in Indonesia to be about the same age suggests that Homo erectus may have migrated into Asia as early as 2 million years ago — and then migrated across the continent very quickly — and other hominid species were running about at around the same time. There is also evidence that a hominid species more primitive than Homo erectus may have evolved in China before that time.

The earliest evidence of early modern man (used to be called Cro-Magnon Man) in China dates to around 100,000 to 40,000 years ago. What took place between the arrival of the first hominids in Asia roughly 2 million years ago and the earliest modern man is very sketchy, ambiguous and confusing.

Good Websites and Sources: Longgupo Mystery Nature.com ; John Hawks weblog /johnhawks.net/weblog/fossils/apes/lufengpithecus ; Peking Man: Zhoukoudian is where the Peking Man bones were discovered. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO Zhoukoudian site ; Wikipedia on Peking Man Wikipedia ; Wikipedia on Zhoukoudian Wikipedia ; China.org China,org ; National Geographic National Geographic

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 2) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 3) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; 4) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996)

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Homo Erectus in China

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Homo erectus
Homo erectus lived 1.7 million years to 250,000 years ago. He had a considerably larger brain than his predecessor Homo habilis, fashioned more advanced tools (double-edged, teardrop-shaped "hand axes" and "cleavers" ) and controlled fire (based on the discovery of charcoal with erectus fossils). Better foraging and hunting skills improved his ability to exploit his environment.

The dating of Java Man Homo erectus bones to around 1.7 million years ago suggests that Homo erectus traveled through China or nearby Southeast Asia to reach Java in Indonesia. Russell Ciochon and Roy Larick wrote in Natural History magazine, “There are a half dozen sites in China dating (more or less convincingly) to between 1.8 million and 800,000 years ago.” Some have stone tools. Others have human-like bones. There is some debate as to whether these bones belong to hominids or apes.

Paul Rincon of the BBC wrote: Comparisons with other sites show that Homo erectus survived successive warm and cold periods in northern Asia. Researchers Russell Ciochon and E Arthur Bettis III, from the University of Iowa, US, believe these climatic cycles may have caused the expansion of open habitats, such as grasslands and steppe. These environments would have been rich in mammals that could have been hunted or scavenged by early humans. [Source: Paul Rincon, BBC, March 11, 2009]

“Recent revised dates for other hominid occupation sites in North-East Asia show that human habitation of the region began about 1.3 million years ago.” Chinese “fossils are a vital component of the Out of Africa migration theory, which proposes that Homo erectus first appeared in Africa around two million years ago before spreading north and east (modern humans, Homo sapiens, would follow much later and supplant all other Homo species). Evidence of the first dispersal comes from the site of Dmanisi in Georgia, where numerous hominid fossils dating to 1.75 million years ago have been unearthed. Finds from Java suggest early humans reached South-East Asia by 1.6 million years ago. [Source: Paul Rincon, BBC, March 11, 2009 ^|^]

“The northern populations represented at Zhoukoudian [Peking Man, See Below] were probably separated from southern populations represented on the island of Java by a zone of sub-tropical forest inhabited by the giant panda, orangutans, gibbons and a giant ape called Gigantopithecus. It is not clear whether H. erectus ever reached Europe; the earliest European fossils have been assigned to the species Homo antecessor. But this classification is disputed, and some researchers believe the Spanish antecessor fossils do indeed belong with H. erectus. Recent discoveries suggest that on the Indonesian island of Flores, Homo erectus, or another early human species, became isolated and evolved into a dwarf species called Homo floresiensis, nicknamed "The Hobbit".” ^|^

Peking Man

right Peking Man (Sinanthropus pekinensis) was not a single individual, but a species of Homo erectus who were very similar to modern humans, having a large brain, and similar skull and bone sizes, but who had heavy brows and large, chinless jaws. They lived between 750,000 and 200,000 years ago.

"Peking Man" refers to a collection of six complete or nearly complete skulls, 14 cranial fragments, six facial fragments, 15 jawbones, 157 teeth, one collarbone, three upper arms, one wrist, seven thighbones, and one shinbone found in caves and a quarry in Zhoukoudian outside of Peking (Beijing). It is believed the remains came from 40 individuals of both sexes. Both Peking Man and Java Man have been categorized as members of the hominid species Homo erectus.

The Peking Man bones are the largest collection of hominid bones ever found at one site and were the first evidence that early man reached China. It was first thought the bones were between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. Now it is believed that they are 400,000 to 780,000 years old based on dating the sediments in which the fossils were found. No chemical tests or research were ever done on the bones before they mysteriously disappeared at the beginning of World War II.

Paul Rincon of the BBC wrote: “The cave system of Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in the world. Between 1921 and 1966, archaeologists working at the site unearthed tens of thousands of stone tools and hundreds of fragmentary remains from about 40 early humans. Palaeontologists later assigned these members of the human lineage to the species Homo erectus. The pre-war Peking Man fossils vanished in 1941 whilst being transported to the US for safekeeping. Luckily, the palaeontologist Franz Weidenreich had made casts for researchers to study.” [Source: Paul Rincon, BBC, March 11, 2009]

See Separate Article on PEKING MAN

Hominid Sites from China

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Peking Man cave
There are a lot of very old hominid sites in China and a lot of controversy surrounding them and the interpretations that have been drawn from them. The following is a sample of some of these. The dating and conclusions made from some of the sites are still being debated by paleontologists.

Stones tools found in Renzidong (Reni Cave) in Anhui Province in eastern China suggest that Homo erectus may have established itself in China 2.25 million years ago. Teeth and tools found in Chinese province of Yunnan once thought to be 700,000 year old were redated and found to be 1.8 millions year old through paleomagnetic analysis. Stone tools found in the Nihean Basin of north-central China indicate that humans lived in northern China as early as 1.36 million years ago.

A skull found in Yunxian, China, believed to be at least 600,000 years old, has browridges like Homo erectus specimens found in Java has the facial features that are more similar to younger skulls found in Europe. "This mix of characteristics tells us that there was more diversity within Homo erectus than we had thought," one scientist told National Geographic. Other scientist believe that skull is not from Homo erectus at all but from a species called Homo heidelbergensis that may have given birth to modern humans and Neanderthals.

Male and female Homo erectus skulls (sometimes referred to as Nanjing Man) were discovered in 1993 in Tangshan Cave near Shanghai. They have been dated to be between 580,000 to 620,000 years old.

Nihewan and Yuanmou Homo erectus Sites

According to the Smithsonian: “Since 2001, the Human Origins Program has collaborated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to study the oldest clues to the spread of human ancestors to East Asia. This work has re-calculated the age of excavated discoveries by earlier teams, particularly in the extraordinary fossil beds of the Nihewan basin of northern China (Hebei Province) and the Yuanmou site in southern China (Yunnan Province). [Source: Human Origins Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, May 4, 2016 */*]

“In both regions, our team has re-examined the early hominin evidence and has undertaken geological reanalysis of the excavation sites. The geological work entails micro-sampling of the sediments to determine the finest scale changes in the magnetic properties of the sediments, which can be tied to the sequence of well-dated shifts in Earth’s magnetic field. The last of the major shifts occurred around 790,000 to 780,000 years ago (known as the Brunhes-Matuyama boundary), and the detailed sampling by the Chinese team has even captured minor shifts in the magnetic field. */*

“The Nihewan research includes new excavations, which have led so far to the recovery of the oldest known stone tools in northern China, in a series of layers dating from approximately 1.66 to 1.32 million years old. The Yuanmou stone tools and fossil incisor teeth are from a layer dated around 1.7 million years ago. These ages are based on the calculation of rates of sediment deposition between the known magnetic transitions in the Nihewan and Yuanmou strata. Ages can be determined because calculations of deposition rate in different parts of the sequence are all highly consistent; this implies that the age of the fossils and artifacts within the sediments can be reliably estimated.” */*

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Modern man (not Homo erectus) migrations based
on genetic evidence beginning 140,000 years ago

Out of Africa Theory

The oldest known evidence of hominins outside of Africa come from the site of Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia, one of the most prolific fossil human sites in recent years. The age of the Dmanisi fossils is about 1.85 to 1.75 million years old. [Source: Human Origins Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, May 4, 2016 */*]

Jane Qiu wrote in Nature: “In this standard view of human evolution, H. erectus first evolved there more than 2 million years ago (see 'Two routes for human evolution'). Then, some time before 600,000 years ago, it gave rise to a new species: Homo heidelbergensis, the oldest remains of which have been found in Ethiopia. About 400,000 years ago, some members of H. heidelbergensis left Africa and split into two branches: one ventured into the Middle East and Europe, where it evolved into Neanderthals; the other went east, where members became Denisovans — a group first discovered in Siberia in 2010. The remaining population of H. heidelbergensis in Africa eventually evolved into our own species, H. sapiens, about 200,000 years ago. Then these early humans expanded their range to Eurasia 60,000 years ago, where they replaced local hominins with a minuscule amount of interbreeding. [Source: Jane Qiu, Nature magazine, July 13, 2016 |:|]

“A hallmark of H. heidelbergensis — the potential common ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans — is that individuals have a mixture of primitive and modern features. Like more archaic lineages, H. heidelbergensis has a massive brow ridge and no chin. But it also resembles H. sapiens, with its smaller teeth and bigger braincase. Most researchers have viewed H. heidelbergensis — or something similar — as a transitional form between H. erectus and H. sapiens.” |:|

Asia, China and the Out of Africa Theory


Homo erectus in Asia

According to the Smithsonian: “Comparing the Georgian and Chinese dates, the evidence from the Nihewan and Yuanmou regions is consistent with the spread of early hominin populations beyond Africa into the Caucasus region and into East Asia between roughly 2 million and 1.7 million years ago. By 1.66 million years ago, early humans of the genus Homo who reached eastern Asia were able to disperse over a wide area that extended from at least 40̊N (Nihewan basin) to 7̊S (Java, Indonesia), across a habitat range from temperate grassland to tropical woodland and possibly forest. [Source: Human Origins Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, May 4, 2016 */*]

“Which species was the first to spread beyond Africa? The Dmanisi fossil humans are widely considered to represent Homo erectus, although skeletal remains suggest that the population at Dmanisi was smaller in stature than East African H. erectus at a broadly similar time. The Yuanmou fossil teeth are very similar to those of the 1.6-million-year-old Turkana boy skeleton from West Turkana, Kenya, usually assigned to H. erectus. The earliest fossils from Java, Indonesia, are typically assigned to H. erectus, and are reliably dated to 1.66 million years old. (A dated layer of 1.8 million years old reported in 1994 comes from about 20 meters beneath the level of the fossil find; this means that the fossil – the Mojokerto child cranium – is younger than the dated layer.)

“The evidence point to Homo erectus as the first. In fact, the relatively longer legs of this species than in earlier hominins may also signal this is species was the first human ancestor capable of ranging over a wide geographic area. However, the oldest Indonesian fossils discovered so far are not complete enough to definitively assign to H. erectus. The Yuanmou teeth are not by themselves sufficient to say they represent H. erectus. Finally, the ‘hobbit’ H. floresiensis is an enigma as to whether its direct ancestor was H. erectus or an earlier species of the genus Homo. The case is still open, then, about which species was the first to reach East Asia. */*

“The dispersal to East Asia, nonetheless, culminated in the ability of hominins to adapt to a wide variety of environments and, eventually, H. erectus was able to persist in this part of the world for more than 1 million years prior to the arrival of H. sapiens. The dating work in China is led by Dr. Zhu Rixiang of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Beijing. The paleoanthropological part of the project is led by Dr. Rick Potts. Excavations in the Nihewan basin are led by Prof. Xie Fei of the Hebei Province Institute of Cultural Relics, Shijiazhuang.

Taking a New Look Human Evolution in Asia and China

Jane Qiu wrote in Nature: “ “Many Western scientists tend to see Asian fossils and artefacts through the prism of what was happening in Africa and Europe,” says Wu. Those other continents have historically drawn more attention in studies of human evolution because of the antiquity of fossil finds there, and because they are closer to major palaeoanthropology research institutions, he says. “But it's increasingly clear that many Asian materials cannot fit into the traditional narrative of human evolution.” Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, agrees. “Asia has been a forgotten continent,” he says. “Its role in human evolution may have been largely under-appreciated.”[Source: Jane Qiu, Nature magazine, July 13, 2016 |:|]

Despite the different interpretations of the Chinese fossil record, everybody agrees that the evolutionary tale in Asia is much more interesting than people appreciated before. But the details remain fuzzy, because so few researchers have excavated in Asia. When they have, the results have been startling. In 2003, a dig on Flores island in Indonesia turned up a diminutive hominin, which researchers named Homo floresiensis and dubbed the hobbit. With its odd assortment of features, the creature still provokes debate about whether it is a dwarfed form of H. erectus or some more primitive lineage that made it all the way from Africa to southeast Asia and lived until as recently as 60,000 years ago. Last month, more surprises emerged from Flores, where researchers found the remains of a hobbit-like hominin in rocks about 700,000 years old. |:|

“Recovering more fossils from all parts of Asia will clearly help to fill in the gaps. Many palaeoanthropologists also call for better access to existing materials. Most Chinese fossils — including some of the finest specimens, such as the Yunxian and Dali skulls — are accessible only to a handful of Chinese palaeontologists and their collaborators. “To make them available for general studies, with replicas or CT scans, would be fantastic,” says Stringer. Moreover, fossil sites should be dated much more rigorously, preferably by multiple methods, researchers say. But all agree that Asia — the largest continent on Earth — has a lot more to offer in terms of unravelling the human story. “The center of gravity,” says Petraglia, “is shifting eastward.”

Longgupo Cave Remains: Homo erectus? An Earlier Species? An Ape?

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Longgupo
jaw fossil
In 1986, Chinese paleontologists working at Longgupo (Dragon Hill) caves on the Yangtze River in Sichuan province found part of a tiny, lower jaw with an upper incisor tooth, two other teeth and two fist-size stone tools dated by three techniques to be 1.8 to 2 million years old. The fossils resemble homo habilis, a hominid that first appeared in Africa 2.5 million years ago. Some scientists believed the fossils come from an hominid older than Homo erectus. Critics said they come from an ape. It is difficult to tell for sure without more remains. Stones tools linked the bones to hominids.

The Longgupo cave fossils were dated using paleomagnetic dating — a method that dates objects by measuring the periodic reversals of the north and south magnetic poles, which have occurred at known times and rates — and the new method of electron spin resonance. The most reliable and accurate way to date very old fossils is to date the volcanic deposits they are found in. China however lacks volcanic deposits and thus fossils found there are more difficult to date than those found in Africa and Indonesia, where volcanic deposits are abundant.

University of Iowa paleontologist Russel Ciochon initially theorized that a species similar to homo habilis left Africa two million years ago and moved into Asia, evolved into Homo erectus, and returned to Africa. He told Newsweek magazine, if the dating holds up "these fossils will be older than any other human remains in China, and the tools will be the oldest artifacts in Asia." The fossils come from a hominid that "wasn't Homo habilis, and it wasn't Homo erectus, but some other pre-erectus species of Homo. Right before 2 million years ago Homo spread out of Africa." Many other paleontologists had problems with this theory.

The Longgupo Cave remains became known as "Wushan Man". They were found in 1985 in Longgupo (literally "Dragon Bone Slope") near Zhenlongping Village, Miaoyu Town of Wushan County, Chongqing in the Three Gorges area of China 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the Yangtze River. Fossils were discovered at the site in 1984 and then initially excavated by a team of Chinese scientists, led by Huang Wanpo of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and the Chongqing National Museum (Sichuan Province) from 1985 to until 1988. The deposits on the cave floor are over 22 meters deep, with the 10 meters containing fossils overlain by 12 meters that do not. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 1986, three fore-teeth and a left mandible with two molars were unearthed together with the animal fossils including teeth from an extinct type of large ape Gigantopithecus and an extinct pygmy giant panda Ailuropoda microta. Excavations carried between 1997 and 1999 and then between 2003 and 2006 have found additional stone tools and animal fossils including remains of 120 species of vertebrates, of which 116 are mammals. This suggests the fossils existed originally in a subtropical forest environment. +

Dating of the layers containing the fossil remains was initially done using archaeomagnetic dating of traces of the Earth's ancient magnetic field. These confirmed a Pleistocene age linking the fossil jaw to around 1.78 million to 1.96 million years ago and so the same time as the human fossils that appeared in Africa's Olduvai Gorge. Later in 1992, a joint Chinese-American-Canadian research team using electron spin resonance dating and a deer tooth from one of the cave's upper levels three meters above that containing the jaw dated this level to a minimum age of 750,000 years and a most likely age of 1 million making the layers below at least and probably much older in date than this. More recent dating techniques suggest the layer containing the fossils are 2 million to 2.04 million years old. +

Russell Ciochon and Roy Larick wrote in Natural History magazine, “There are a half dozen sites in China dating (more or less convincingly) to between 1.8 million and 800,000 years ago.....A few score stone tools and Pliocene (5-1.8 million years ago) mammal bones were found at Longgupo ("Dragon Hill") in Wushan County, eastern Sichuan Province. Our own geochronological studies suggest the infill is nearly 2 million years old.Longgupo has produced tantalizing fossils of Procynocephalus and Homo, the latter including a jaw fragment with two very worn molars. For some Western scientists, the teeth share features with earliest Homo in East Africa--leading us to suggest a direct link, a "dispersal" of African hominins to East Asia about 2 million years ago. But Chinese paleoanthropologists tend to see these same primitive features as deriving from Asian apes and suggest a local Asian origin for H. erectus. Renzidong supplies this "Asian hypothesis" with tools as old as any fashioned by H. erectus in Africa, but most Western scholars favor an early dispersal of Homo out of Africa into Asia, few would support an Asian origin of the genus Homo. The Pliocene record of hominins in Africa preceding Homo is extensive, while such a record has yet to be unearthed in Asia. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Roy Larick. Natural History magazine, January/February 2000. Russell L. Ciochon is chair of anthropology at the University of Iowa]

Russell Ciochon and Longgupo Cave

Early reports of Longgupo were in Chinese journals and did not gather attention from outside China. In 1992, Russell Ciochon was invited to Longgupo to examine and provide a reliable age for the jaw. This led to a cover-story article published in Nature published in 1995 by Ciochon and a Chinese paleoanthropologist that dated the jawbone to be 1.9 million years old and pronounced it as likely belonging to a hominid.

In Nature Ciochon wrote: “The Longgupo site, discovered in 1984, lies 20 kilometers south of the Yangtze River in eastern Sichuan. At the beginning of the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago) this cave sat near the northern range of a subtropical forest as rich with life as any in contemporary Africa. Unsurprisingly, the mammalian fossils dug up from Longgupo belonged to the subtropical Stegodon–Ailuropoda fauna found throughout the subtropical forested region south of China's Qinling Mountains (see map). The name comes from two common members — the extinct elephant-like Stegodon and the bear-like giant panda, Ailuropoda. It includes primates such as the extinct giant ape Gigantopithecus, as well as the ancestors of the living orangutan (Pongo) and gibbon (Hylobates). [Source: Russell L. Ciochon, Nature, August 2009 ^^^]

“But Longgupo also yielded a mystery jaw fragment, including the fourth premolar and the first molar. Although obviously primate, the worn enamel surfaces made precise classification difficult. Some had called it an ape whereas others saw an early human. In 1992, colleagues and I were invited to Longgupo to provide a reliable age determination and to help understand the palaeoanthropology. ^^^

“The 1.8-million–2-million-year-old jaw was smaller than that of any known orangutan, living or extinct. We also compared it with primate dental fossils from the site of Lufeng, in neighbouring Yunnan province. Lufengpithecus was of the right size and general morphology, but the age was wrong: Lufeng and similar sites belonged to the late Miocene period, about 7 million–9 million years ago. Some possible stone tools found at the site seemed to support a human classification. Asian H. erectus was the obvious possibility, but the size, tooth proportions and root structure were not quite right. Dissatisfied with the usual regional comparisons, we looked to Longgupo's possible links with early African humans such as H. habilis, whose Great Rift Valley fossils are as old as 2.3 million years. Our Nature announcement1 thus presented the Longgupo jaw as a newcomer to the Stegodon–Ailuropoda fauna: an African hominin more primitive than H. erectus.” ^^^

Longgupo Cave Remains and the Out of Africa Theory

In the 1995 Nature article, Criochon wrote: “The new evidence suggests that hominids entered Asia before 2 Myr, coincident with the earliest diversification of genus Homo in Africa. Clearly, the first hominid to arrive in Asia was a species other than true H. erectus, and one that possessed a stone-based technology. A pre-erectus hominid in China as early as 1.9 Myr provides the most likely antecedents for the in situ evolution of Homo erectus in Asia.” This makes its status as a Homo fossil critically important to the study of human origins as it suggests that H. erectus was not the first human species to leave Africa and supports the argument made by some that H. erectus evolved in Asia and not Africa. [Source: Wikipedia, Nature]

Ciochon dated the Longgupo fossils to be 1.9-million years old. In Nature Ciochon wrote: “The ancient date in itself was spectacular. Previous evidence had suggested that human ancestors arrived in east Asia from Africa about 1 million years ago, in the form of Homo erectus. Longgupo nearly doubled that estimate. But even more exciting — and contentious — was our claim that the jaw was related to H. habilis, a species of distinctly African origin. If this descendant of H. habilis had arrived so early into southeast Asia, then it probably gave rise to H. erectus in the Far East, rather than H. erectus itself sweeping west to east. [Source: Russell L. Ciochon, Nature, August 2009]

Some had their doubts that the Longgupo jaw even belonged to a hominid. Milford Wolpoff, a a paleoanthropologist at the University of Michigan, wrote in his 1999 book, Paleoanthropology: “ The Longgupo mandible is actually a fossil ape that is related to Lufengpithecus, the missing P3 was sectorial in shape. However the prestigious British Journal Nature hastily published it as a hominid, with a picture of the specimen on its cover, and subsequently refused to accept papers establishing its identity. The misidentifications actually started decades ago, when G.H.R. von Koenigswald identified an ancient australopithecine-like hominid from South China based on worn, isolated teeth, which he named “Hemianthropus.” These turned out to be worn postcanine teeth of a medium-sized Pongo species. The resemblances of the other materials to Australopithecus species were real enough, but they were not unique resemblances. A. Kramer and Zhang Yinyun have each shown there are no synapomorphies that support the hypothesis of Asian australopithecines.”

Final Word: Longgupo Cave Remains from an Ape Not a Human

The jaw and molars found at Lonngupo are now believed to be the be remains of an extinct ape not a subspecies of Homo erectus. In 2009, Ciochon admitted as such. In an article published in Nature, Ciochon wrote: “ For many years, I used Longgupo to promote this pre-erectus origin for H. erectus finds in Asia. But now, in light of new evidence from across southeast Asia and after a decade of my own field research in Java, I have changed my mind. Not everyone may agree; such classifications are always open to interpretation. But I am now convinced that the Longgupo fossil and others like it do not represent a pre-erectus human, but rather one or more mystery apes indigenous to southeast Asia's Pleistocene primal forest. In contrast, H. erectus arrived in Asia about 1.6 million years ago, but steered clear of the forest in pursuit of grassland game. There was no pre-erectus species in southeast Asia after all.[Source: Russell L. Ciochon, Nature, August 2009. This Essay is based on a contribution to the book Out of Africa I: Who, When and Where? (eds, Fleagle, J. G. et al. Springer, 2009) +++]

“We weren't the first or last to suggest that a pre-erectus African hominin migrated to east Asia. In the 1940s and 1950s pre-erectus African claims were made for fossils from Sangiran, on Java, Indonesia. Early in Sangiran's long history of H. erectus discoveries, a couple of massive jaws seemed similar to those of South African australopiths — they were coined 'Meganthropus'. But as more fossils were discovered at Sangiran, it became clear that the Meganthropus jaws were merely a local variant of H. erectus. +++

“More than a decade later, with some distance from the subject, the teeth looked distinctly more ape-like... In spring 2005, I met with Wang Wei, director of the Guangxi Natural History Museum, to examine his collection of 33 primate teeth from Mohui cave in Bubing Basin, south China. Wang's excavations produced an excellent sample of the Stegodon–Ailuropoda fauna. Quickly I could see that 15 teeth were those of Gigantopithecus, and 10 were probably Pongo. The remaining eight specimens did not fit with any known east Asian Pleistocene primate. +++

“Some 15 years earlier, I had worked hard to show that Gigantopithecus had crossed paths with H. erectus; I wrote a book in 1990 proposing this relationship (Other Origins: The Search for the Giant Ape in Human Prehistory) and a few years later had documented evidence of the species' co-existence. In my mind the two were firmly linked. But more than a decade after the discovery, with some distance from the subject, the teeth in Wang's lab looked distinctly more ape-like than hominin. +++

“Without the assumption that Gigantopithecus and H. erectus lived together, everything changed: if early humans were not part of the Stegodon–Ailuropoda fauna, I had to envision a chimpanzee-sized ape in its place — either a descendant of Lufengpithecus, or a previously unknown ape genus. The Mohui mystery teeth surely belonged to an unknown ape, as did Longgupo, and other human-like teeth often identified from similar cave fossils. Although I no longer consider the Longgupo jaw to be human, the two stone tools still stand as described. They must have been more recent additions to the site. +++

“The mystery ape concept is bolstered by looking at definitive H. erectus finds in east Asia. Our knowledge comes mainly from two sites: Zhoukoudian near Beijing, which lies well north of the primal forest, and Sangiran in Java, which lies well south of it. Each site represents hundreds of thousands of years of H. erectus occupation: Sangiran beginning as early as 1.6 million years ago, Zhoukoudian beginning about 780,000 years ago. Neither site preserves Stegodon–Ailuropoda fauna or mystery ape teeth. Homo erectus, it seems from this perspective, hunted grazing mammals on open grasslands, and did not or could not penetrate the dense subtropical forest. In fact, there is no record of early hominins living in tropical or subtropical forested environments in Africa or Asia. +++

“In resolving the mystery, two other Asian sites come to mind: Jianshi (Hubei province, China) and Tham Khuyen (Lang Son province, Vietnam). At both sites, teeth labelled variously as Australopithecus, H. erectus and Meganthropus are most likely to be the mystery ape instead. Others have come to similar conclusions7; a 2009 paper identifies a tooth from Sanhe Cave (Chongzuo, Guangxi province, China) as belonging to an unidentified ape8.” +++

2.25 Million-Year-Old Homo erectus Tools in China?

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1.7 million years old tools from
Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia
In 2000, Russell Ciochon announced he and other scientists found stone tools among the remains of animals they believed were used by early Homo erectus 2.25 million years ago for butchering. Ciochon and Roy Larick wrote in Natural History magazine, “The ancient fossil site of Renzidong (Renzi Cave) in Anhui Province, eastern China, is yielding animal bones and possible stone tools showing that Homo erectus may have established itself here 2.25 million years ago, more than 400,000 years earlier than previously thought. Renzidong appears to be the oldest among a growing number of sites suggesting great antiquity for hominins (humans and close ancestors) in East Asia. The site, a large fissure, is also fueling a debate on the origins of our genus Homo, with some Chinese scientists proposing an evolution of H. erectus in China parallel to that already observed in Africa. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Roy Larick. Natural History magazine, January/February 2000 +++]

“Renzidong was discovered in a Fangshang County cliff face as workers were quarrying surrounding limestone. Digging for two years now, excavation leader Jin Changzhu of Beijing's Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and Han Ligang and Zheng Longting of Hefei, Anhui Province, have found some 3,000 bones of animals that had fallen into the fissure. Among nearly 60 species represented, the elephant-like Sinomastodon, an ancient tapir, and the monkey Procynocephalus show that Renzidong was open briefly between 2.5 and 2 million years ago. +++

“But the most exciting evidence is archaeological: about 50 stones and bones fractured to make flakes and scrapers. Early hominins apparently descended into the fissure to butcher the animals that fell in. The problem is that their technology in East Asia was simple; archaeologists frequently have trouble distinguishing real knapped tools from similar objects splintered by natural forces. Moreover, fissure infills never preserve the kind of evidence of habitation we know so well from contemporary sites in East Africa, such as at Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. But the 1999 campaign began to show something different. The skeletons of a mastodon and a tapir, both victims of falls, were found together in the dig's lower levels. The mastodon bones lie piled along one wall, while the tapir remains seem to have been laid out for butchering; tools were found scattered about. Under this stratum there appears to be a level of Procynocephalus skeletons. This primate, like H. erectus, preferred open environments. Fossils of H. erectus and similar monkeys are often found together at Asian and East African sites.” +++

2.25 Million-Year-Old Tools Show Homo erectus Evolved in Asia?


Peking Man stone scraper

Russell Ciochon and Roy Larick wrote in Natural History magazine, “Both sides of the culturally charged hominin-emergence debate point to the effect of plate tectonics in climate change. Between 9 and 4 million years ago, the convergence of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates gave rise to the Tibet Plateau, which caused the climates from East Africa to East Asia to become more seasonal and arid. Western scientists believe that these events triggered forest-dwelling apes in equatorial Africa to beget open-dwelling hominins. But Chinese scientists use the tectonic evidence to suggest a parallel hominin emergence in East Asia. In their view, a ten-million-year-old forest ape was the putative ancestor of H. erectus, orangutans, and the extinct Gigantopithecus, the largest ape that ever lived. With Longgupo's primitive teeth and Renzidong's ancient stone tools, the Asian hypothesis is gaining (mostly Chinese) converts. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Roy Larick. Natural History magazine, January/February 2000 +++]

“Whether one favors African or Asian origins, early hominins were ferociously migratory, and this led to the worldwide diaspora of our species, H. sapiens. Early humans repeatedly passed between Africa and Asia, and their movements correspond to those of other large mammals, including carnivores--early Homo and the dagger-toothed cat Megantereon, the remains of which have been found at Renzidong, could have been such traveling companions. +++

“Are the Renzidong tools real? Do the half dozen other Chinese sites reveal the earliest colony of dispersing African hominins--or do they constitute the heartland of the genus Homo? While the Chinese sites pose interpretive problems, the Asian hypothesis for the origin of Homo has energized Chinese scientists and loosed important funding from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other Beijing-based government agencies.” +++

Chinese Scientists Find 2-Million-Year-Old 'Playground' of Ancient Toys

In March 2015, Chinese scientists announced they discovered several hundred objects they described as toys dated to be roughly two million years. Washington University Anthropology News reported: “Archaeologists found more than 700 stone artifacts in the Nihewan basin of China's Hebei province. The archaeologists believe the site was once home to a small "playground" of sorts, The South China Morning Post reports, because it didn't contain animal remains or large stone tools, which would be typical for a habitat site, but not a children's play area. [Source: Meghan DeMaria, Washington University Anthropology News, March 27, 2015 /*/]

“The archaeologists say the artifacts were small and most likely carved by women and children. "This is an amazing discovery," Wei Qi, a paleoanthropologist who is leading the research at the site, told The South China Morning Post. "The site is a treasure chamber that may hold some useful clues to answer a lot of important questions, from the social structure of the early hominids to whether, when, and how they arrived in Asia all the way from Africa." Scientists generally accept that human ancestors migrated out of Africa 1.8 million years ago, but if the site's artifacts predate that figure, it could mean they left earlier or evolved completely independently.” /*/

Mysteries and Confusion Regarding Human Evolution in Asia and China


One theory of dispersal routes out of Africa

The fossil evidence from the period between Peking Man, roughly 1 million to 500,000 years ago, and the earliest Modern Man found in China, roughly 40,000 years ago is scarce and often confusing and ambiguous. “It is the least understood episode in human evolution, Russell Ciochon, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Iowa, told Nature. “But it's central to our understanding of humanity's ultimate origin.” Jane Qiy wrote: “The tale is further muddled by Chinese fossils analysed over the past four decades, which cast doubt over the linear progression from African H. erectus to modern humans. They show that, between roughly 900,000 and 125,000 years ago, east Asia was teeming with hominins endowed with features that would place them somewhere between H. erectus and H. sapiens, says Wu Xinzhi, a palaeontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. “Those fossils are a big mystery,” says Ciochon. “They clearly represent more advanced species than H. erectus, but nobody knows what they are because they don't seem to fit into any categories we know.” [Source: Jane Qiu, Nature magazine, July 13, 2016 |:|]

The fossils' transitional characteristics have prompted researchers such as Stringer to lump them with H. heidelbergensis. Because the oldest of these forms, two skulls uncovered in Yunxian in Hubei province, date back 900,000 years, Stringer even suggests that H. heidelbergensis might have originated in Asia and then spread to other continents. But many researchers, including most Chinese palaeontologists, contend that the materials from China are different from European and African H. heidelbergensis fossils, despite some apparent similarities. One nearly complete skull unearthed at Dali in Shaanxi province and dated to 250,000 years ago, has a bigger braincase, a shorter face and a lower cheekbone than most H. heidelbergensis specimens, suggesting that the species was more advanced. |:|

“Such transitional forms persisted for hundreds of thousands of years in China, until species appeared with such modern traits that some researchers have classified them as H. sapiens. One of the most recent of these is represented by two teeth and a lower jawbone, dating to about 100,000 years ago, unearthed in 2007 by IVPP palaeoanthropologist Liu Wu and his colleagues. Discovered in Zhirendong, a cave in Guangxi province, the jaw has a classic modern-human appearance, but retains some archaic features of Peking Man, such as a more robust build and a less-protruding chin. |:|

Peking Man: an Ancestor Modern Chinese?

Jane Qiu wrote in Nature: “Most Chinese palaeontologists — and a few ardent supporters from the West — think that the transitional fossils are evidence that Peking Man was an ancestor of modern Asian people. In this model, known as multiregionalism or continuity with hybridization, hominins descended from H. erectus in Asia interbred with incoming groups from Africa and other parts of Eurasia, and their progeny gave rise to the ancestors of modern east Asians, says Wu. [Source: Jane Qiu, Nature magazine, July 13, 2016 |:|]

“Support for this idea also comes from artefacts in China. In Europe and Africa, stone tools changed markedly over time, but hominins in China used the same type of simple stone instruments from about 1.7 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. According to Gao Xing, an archaeologist at the IVPP, this suggests that local hominins evolved continuously, with little influence from outside populations. |:|

“Some Western researchers suggest that there is a hint of nationalism in Chinese palaeontologists' support for continuity. “The Chinese — they do not accept the idea that H. sapiens evolved in Africa,” says one researcher. “They want everything to come from China.” Chinese researchers reject such allegations. “This has nothing to do with nationalism,” says Wu. It's all about the evidence — the transitional fossils and archaeological artefacts, he says. “Everything points to continuous evolution in China from H. erectus to modern human.”

But the continuity-with-hybridization model is countered by overwhelming genetic data that point to Africa as the wellspring of modern humans. Studies of Chinese populations show that 97.4% of their genetic make-up is from ancestral modern humans from Africa, with the rest coming from extinct forms such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. “If there had been significant contributions from Chinese H. erectus, they would show up in the genetic data,” says Li Hui, a population geneticist at Fudan University in Shanghai. Wu counters that the genetic contribution from archaic hominins in China could have been missed because no DNA has yet been recovered from them. |:|

Other Theories on Human Evolution in Asia and China


Another theory on dispersal of modern man in Asia

Jane Qiu wrote in Nature: “Many researchers say that there are ways to explain the existing Asian fossils without resorting to continuity with hybridization. The Zhirendong hominins, for instance, could represent an exodus of early modern humans from Africa between 120,000 and 80,000 years ago. Instead of remaining in the Levant in the Middle East, as was thought previously, these people could have expanded into east Asia, says Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK. [Source: Jane Qiu, Nature magazine, July 13, 2016 |:|]

“Other evidence backs up this hypothesis: excavations at a cave in Daoxian in China's Hunan province have yielded 47 fossil teeth so modern-looking that they could have come from the mouths of people today. But the fossils are at least 80,000 years old, and perhaps 120,000 years old, Liu and his colleagues reported last year. “Those early migrants may have interbred with archaic populations along the way or in Asia, which could explain Zhirendong people's primitive traits,” says Petraglia. |:|

Another possibility is that some of the Chinese fossils, including the Dali skull, represent the mysterious Denisovans, a species identified from Siberian fossils that are more than 40,000 years old. Palaeontologists don't know what the Denisovans looked like, but studies of DNA recovered from their teeth and bones indicate that this ancient population contributed to the genomes of modern humans, especially Australian Aborigines, Papua New Guineans and Polynesians — suggesting that Denisovans might have roamed Asia. |:|

“María Martinón-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist at University College London, is among those who proposed that some of the Chinese hominins were Denisovans. She worked with IVPP researchers on an analysis, published last year, of a fossil assemblage uncovered at Xujiayao in Hebei province — including partial jaws and nine teeth dated to 125,000–100,000 years ago. The molar teeth are massive, with very robust roots and complex grooves, reminiscent of those from Denisovans, she says. |:|

“A third idea is even more radical. It emerged when Martinón-Torres and her colleagues compared more than 5,000 fossil teeth from around the world: the team found that Eurasian specimens are more similar to each other than to African ones. That work and more recent interpretations of fossil skulls suggest that Eurasian hominins evolved separately from African ones for a long stretch of time. The researchers propose that the first hominins that left Africa 1.8 million years ago were the eventual source of modern humans. Their descendants mostly settled in the Middle East, where the climate was favourable, and then produced waves of transitional hominins that spread elsewhere. One Eurasian group went to Indonesia, another gave rise to Neanderthals and Denisovans, and a third ventured back into Africa and evolved into H. sapiens, which later spread throughout the world. In this model, modern humans evolved in Africa, but their immediate ancestor originated in the Middle East. |:|

“Not everybody is convinced. “Fossil interpretations are notoriously problematic,” says Svante Pääbo, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. But DNA from Eurasian fossils dating to the start of the human race could help to reveal which story — or combination — is correct. China is now making a push in that direction. Qiaomei Fu, a palaeogeneticist who did her PhD with Pääbo, returned home last year to establish a lab to extract and sequence ancient DNA at the IVPP. One of her immediate goals is to see whether some of the Chinese fossils belong to the mysterious Denisovan group. The prominent molar teeth from Xujiayao will be an early target. “I think we have a prime suspect here,” she says.” |:|

Image Sources: All Posters com http://www.allposters.com/?lang=1 Search Chinese Art; Longgupo jaw fossil, Wikipedia; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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