EARLIEST HOMININS AND HUMAN ANCESTORS IN CHINA

HOMININS IN CHINA

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Homo erectus
Evidence has been found of early paleolithic hominins 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. Hominins are early forms of humans. The stone tools and fossils linked to Homo erectus found in north and central China are the earliest discovered protohuman remains in northeast Asia. Some of the tools date to more than 1.3 million years ago. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

Until recently scientists believed that man evolved in Africa and didn't leave that continent until 1.5 million years ago and the first hominin 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 hominin 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 hominin 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 ancestors of humans are called both hominins and hominids. Hominids include all modern and extinct Great Apes ( modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans and all their immediate ancestors). Hominins include modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors (including Australopithecus and members of the genera Homo such as homo erectus and homo habalis). [Source: Australian Museum]

Many artifacts in China are 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. The oldest artifacts found in China tend to be tools rather than bones and fossils from hominins, which make its hard to figure out who used and produced the tools and artifacts found.

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 hominins in Asia roughly 2 million years ago and the earliest modern man is very sketchy, ambiguous and confusing.

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 hominins 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 hominin 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 homini 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 hominin species Homo erectus.

The Peking Man bones are the largest collection of hominin 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]

Hominin Sites from China

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Peking Man cave

There are a lot of very old hominin 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

Xiaochangliang — in the Nihewan Basin in Yangyuan County, Hebei, China — is the site of some of the oldest paleolithic remains related to hominins in East Asia. It is famous for the variety stone tools discovered there — which includes side and end scrapers, notches, burins and disc cores — and the relative accuracy of the dating of the tools. It is generally more difficult to date northeast Asian sites than African sites because the Asian ones usually lack volcanic materials that can be dated isotropically. The tools at Nihewan have been dated magnetostratigraphically — a method that utilizes dated reversals in the Earth's magnetic field — to 1.36 million years old. [Source: Wikipedia]

The site was first discovered by the US geologist George Barbour in 1923. In 1935 French archaeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin found a flint tool determined to be over a million years — the oldest artefact then known. Peking Man was found hundred kilometers to the south. From 1972 to 1978 more than 2000 pieces of stone tools and some bone tools were discovered, that dated paleolithic times. In 1982, a large hominin settlement was discovered at Donggutuo Village.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Nihewan Site is a unique testimony for the origin and evolution of civilization of human from the Palaeolithic Age to the early Neolithic Age. In Nihewan Basin, more than 80 sites of early human cultural relics have been found, and tens of thousands pieces of ancient human fossils, animal fossils and various stones have been unearthed, they almost record the whole process of evolution from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic Age, and advance the origin of Asian culture to 2 million years ago, relics of ancient human activities 2 million years ago have been found here other than in East Africa, which puts forward a significant challenge to "the only African human origin theory". At the same time, the scenes of ancient human eating something, which are extremely rare in the world's Paleolithic archaeological excavations, which happened 2 million years ago and which are recuperable, have been found. It can be said that this group of sites has directly changed the world history about human origins and development of human civilization and becomes a shrine for human seeking their roots. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

Since 2001, the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program has collaborated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to study evidence of hominins in East Asia. According to the Smithsonian: “ 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). “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. [Source: Human Origins Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, May 4, 2016 /]

“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.”

Good Evidence of Hominins in China 2.1 Million Years Ago

Stone tools found in China’s Loess Plateau dated to 2.1 million years ago. were touted by scientists in 2018 as possibly the oldest evidence of human life outside Africa. The Guardian reported: “The remains of crudely fashioned stone tools unearthed in China suggest human ancestors were in Asia 2.1 million years ago, more than 200,000 years earlier than previously thought. If correctly dated, the find means that hominins left Africa earlier than archaeologists have been able to demonstrate thus far, a team reported in the scientific journal Nature. “Our discovery means that it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa,” said study co-author Robin Dennell of Exeter University in England. [Source: Agence France-Presse, The Guardian, July 11, 2018]

“Previously, the oldest evidence for hominins in Asia came from Georgia in the form of fossilised skeleton bits and artefacts dated to between 1.77 million and 1.85 million years ago. There have been other, unproven, claims of even older fossil discoveries, the study authors said.

“The latest find of 96 stone tools, was extracted from 17 layers of sediment in the southern Chinese Loess plateau. Dennell and a team used a field of science known as “palaeomagnetism” to date the sediment layers. These form when dust or mud settles before being capped by another new soil coat. Any artefact found within a layer would be the same age as the soil around it. Dennell and a team measured the magnetic properties of minerals in the soil layers to determine when they were deposited. This dated the tools, of a type known to have been manufactured by Homo species in Africa since at least 3.3m years ago.

“The paper offers strong evidence for a hominin presence in Asia further back than we thought, Dennell said. “There may be older evidence in places like India and Pakistan, but so far ... the evidence is not strong enough to convince most of the research community,” he said. “With this type of claim, for an early human presence

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 hominin that first appeared in Africa 2.5 million years ago. Some scientists believed the fossils come from an hominin 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 hominins. The Longgupo cave fossils were dated using paleomagnetic dating.

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 hominin 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. +

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) +++]

“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 hominins 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.” /*/

190,000-Year-Old Hominin Bone Found Off Taiwan

In January 2015, a jawbone thought to be from an early hominin species was found in seas off Taiwan. Jiji Press reported: “The mandible, fished up from the Penghu submarine channel, some 25 kilometers off the western shore of Taiwan, has been dated at between 190,000 and 450,000 years old, according to the group, which includes researchers from the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Kyoto University and Taiwan’s National Museum of Natural Science. [Source: Jiji Press, January 28, 2015 ==]

“The jaw and teeth appear stronger and more primitive than specimens from two other Homo erectus, Java Man and Peking Man. It is also different from Homo floresiensis, the so-called “hobbit” hominin, whose fossilized remains were found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, according to the group. “==

In the abstract to an article published in Nature under the title “The first archaic Homo from Taiwan”, Taiwanese and Japanese researchers wrote: Recent studies of an increasing number of hominin fossils highlight regional and chronological diversities of archaic Homo in the Pleistocene of eastern Asia. However, such a realization is still based on limited geographical occurrences mainly from Indonesia, China and Russian Altai. Here we describe a newly discovered archaic Homo mandible from Taiwan (Penghu 1), which further increases the diversity of Pleistocene Asian hominins. Penghu 1 revealed an unexpectedly late survival (younger than 450 but most likely 190–10 thousand years ago) of robust, apparently primitive dentognathic morphology in the periphery of the continent, which is unknown among the penecontemporaneous fossil records from other regions of Asia except for the mid-Middle Pleistocene Homo from Hexian, Eastern China. Such patterns of geographic trait distribution cannot be simply explained by clinal geographic variation of Homo erectus between northern China and Java, and suggests survival of multiple evolutionary lineages among archaic hominins before the arrival of modern humans in the region. [Source: Chun-Hsiang Chang, Yousuke Kaifu, Masanaru Takai,Reiko T. Kono,Rainer Grün, Shuji Matsu’ura, Les Kinsley and Liang-Kong Lin, Nature Communications, January 27, 2015]

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Bifaz triangular blade

146,000-Year-Old Dragon Man: A New Species, Found in China?

A closer look at a massive human skull found in a well in northeast China in the 1930s and dated to 146,000 years ago has forced scientists to rethink human evolution. The skull appears to indicate a new branch of a family tree more closely related to modern humans than Neanderthals Chinese researchers have called the skull, found in Harbin Homo longi, or ‘Dragon man’. [Source: Ian Sample Science editor, The Guardian, June 25, 2021]

Ian Sample wrote in the The Guardian: “The discovery of a huge fossilised skull that was wrapped up and hidden in a Chinese well nearly 90 years ago has forced scientists to rewrite the story of human evolution. “The extraordinary fossil has been named a new human species, Homo longi or “Dragon man”, by Chinese researchers, although other experts are more cautious about the designation. “I think this is one of the most important finds of the past 50 years,” said Prof Chris Stringer, research leader at the Natural History Museum in London, who worked on the project. “It’s a wonderfully preserved fossil.”

“The skull appears to have a remarkable backstory. According to the researchers, it was originally found in 1933 by Chinese labourers building a bridge over the Songhua River in Harbin, in China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, during the Japanese occupation. To keep the skull from falling into Japanese hands it was wrapped and hidden in an abandoned well, resurfacing only in 2018 after the man who hid it told his grandson about it shortly before he died. An international team led by Prof Qiang Ji at the Hebei Geo University in China drew on geochemical techniques to narrow down when the skull came to rest in Harbin, dating the bones to at least 146,000 years old. The skull has a unique combination of primitive and more modern features, with the face, in particular, more closely resembling Homo sapiens. One huge molar remains.

“The skull, which is 23cm long and more than 15cm wide, is substantially larger than a modern human’s and has ample room, at 1,420ml, for a modern human brain. Beneath the thick brow ridge, the face has large square eye sockets, but is delicate despite its size. “This guy had a huge head,” said Stringer. The researchers believe the skull belonged to a male, about 50 years old, who would have been an impressive physical specimen. His wide, bulbous nose allowed him to breathe huge volumes of air, indicating a high-energy lifestyle, while sheer size would have helped him withstand the brutally cold winters in the region. “Homo longi is heavily built, very robust,” said Prof Xijun Ni, a paleoanthropologist at Hebei. “It is hard to estimate the height, but the massive head should match a height higher than the average of modern humans.”

“To work out where the Harbin individual fitted into human history, the scientists fed measurements from the fossil and 95 other skulls into software that compiled the most likely family tree. To their surprise, the Harbin skull and a handful of others from China formed a new branch closer to modern humans than Neanderthals. The Chinese researchers believe the Harbin skull is distinct enough to make it a new species, but Stringer is not convinced. He believes it is similar to another found in Dali county in China in 1978. “I prefer to call it Homo daliensis, but it’s not a big deal,” he said. “The important thing is the third lineage of later humans that are separate from Neanderthals and separate from Homo sapiens.” Details are published in three papers in The Innovation.

“Whatever the name, one possibility is that the Harbin skull is Denisovan, a mysterious group of extinct humans known largely from DNA and bone fragments recovered from Siberia. “Certainly this specimen could be Denisovan but we have to be cautious. What we need is much more complete skeletal material of the Denisovans alongside DNA,” Stringer said. Prof John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the idea of a new lineage of humans was “a provocative claim”, because skulls can look similar even among distant relatives. The skull being Denisovan was a good hypothesis, he added, though he was less keen on a new species name. “I think it’s a bad moment in science to be naming new species among these large-brained humans that all interbred with each other,” he said. “What we are repeatedly finding is that the differences in looks didn’t mean much to these ancient people when it comes to breeding.”

“Mark Maslin, a professor of earth system science at UCL and the author of The Cradle of Humanity, said: “The beautifully preserved Chinese Harbin archaic human skull adds even more evidence that human evolution was not a simple evolutionary tree but a dense intertwined bush. We now know that there were as many as 10 different species of hominins at the same time as our own species emerged. “Genetic analysis shows that these species interacted and interbred – our own genetics contain the legacy of many of these ghost species. But what is a sobering thought, is that despite all this diversity, a new version of Homo sapiens emerged from Africa about 60,000 years ago which clearly out-competed, out-bred, and even out-fought these other closely related species, causing their extinction. It is only by painstaking searching and analysis of their fossils, such as the Harbin skull, do we know of their existence.”

100,000-Year-Old Neanderthal-Like or Denisovan-Like Hominin Found in China

Skulls found in central China in the 2000s and 2010s and dated to be more than 100,000 years old appeared to be part modern human, part Neanderthal, with some suggesting they might be a new species. Ben Guarino wrote in the Washington Post: The partial skulls have features up to this time unseen in the hominid fossil record., sharing both human and Neanderthal characteristics. “It is a very exciting discovery,” as Katerina Harvati, an expert in Neanderthal evolution at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who was not involved with the research, told The Washington Post. “Especially because the human fossil record from East Asia has been not only fragmentary but also difficult to date.” [Source: Ben Guarino, Washington Post, March 3, 2017]

“Excavators dug up the skull cap fragments in 2007 and 2014, in Lingjing, located in China’s Henan province. The diggers discovered two partial skulls in a site thought to be inhabited 105,000 to 125,000 years ago, during an epoch called the Pleistocene. The owners of the skulls were good hunters, capable of fashioning stone blades from quartz. Ancient bones of horses and cattle, as well as extinct woolly rhinoceros and giant deer, were found strewn near the skull remains. [Source: Ben Guarino, Washington Post, March 3, 2017]

“Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and at Washington University in St. Louis described the skulls as having a “mosaic” of features. Writing Thursday in the journal Science, they noted similarities with three groups: The brow ridges of the skulls were modest and the skull bone mass was reduced, like features of early modern humans living in the Old World. The skulls had a broad and flat brainpan, like other eastern Eurasian humans from the mid-Pleistocene epoch. Their semicircular ear canals and the enlarged section at the back of the skull, however, were like a Neanderthal’s. “Eastern Asian late archaic humans have been interpreted to resemble their Neanderthal contemporaries to some degree,” Xiujie Wu, an author of the study at the Chinese Academy of Sciences‘ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, said in a statement. “Yet it is only with the discovery of two human crania,” she said, “that the nature of these eastern Eurasian early Late Pleistocene archaic humans is becoming clear.”

“The large brains of these archaic humans ruled out Homo erectus and other known hominid species, the scientists wrote. The researchers were vague about what they thought the species might be, describing them only as archaic humans. But Wu told Science Magazine that the fossils could represent “a kind of unknown or new ar―chaic human that survived on in East Asia to 100,000 years ago.” Other experts speculated that these skull caps could represent a little-known human relative: the mysterious Denisovans, a species that currently exists only as sequenced DNA taken from finger bone and a tooth found in a Siberian cave. Thought to live some 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, the Denisovans shared genetic material with humans as well as Neanderthals. A 2015 analysis of the specimen scraps indicated that the Denisovans lived for some 60,000 years side-by-side with Neanderthals and humans in Asia. The cranial remains “show an intriguing combination of Neanderthal-like as well as archaic features,” Harvati said. “This would be the combination that one would expect based on the ancient DNA analysis of Denisovans, who were closely related to Neanderthals.”

“The paper did not mention Denisovans, the study authors said, because DNA extraction attempts failed to yield genetic material. But the lack of even a nod toward the Denisovans in the new report was a point that Philipp Gunz, an evolutionary anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, found surprising. The fossils, which Gunz called “remarkable,” as he told The Post, “certainly look like what many paleoanthropologists (myself included) imagine the Denisovans to look like.”

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; 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 August 2021


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