China’s earliest human puts ‘out of Africa’ theory to test

Researchers at WUSTL and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing have been studying a 40,000-year-old early modern human skeleton found in China and have determined that the “out of Africa” dispersal of modern humans may not have been as simple as once thought.

The research was published April 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, with colleague Hong Shang and others at the IVPP examined the skeleton, recovered in 2003 from the Tianyuan Cave, Zhoukoudian, near Beijing City.

The skeleton dates to 38,500-42,000 years ago, making it the oldest securely dated modern human skeleton in China and one of the oldest modern human fossils in eastern Eurasia.

The find could help explain how early man moved east across Europe and Asia, a movement not completely understood by anthropologists.

The “out of Africa” theory proposes that modern humans evolved in Africa and then spread throughout the earth around 70,000 years ago, replacing earlier humans with little or no interbreeding.

The specimen is basically a modern human, but it does have a few archaic characteristics, particularly in the teeth and hand bones.

This morphological pattern implies that a simple spread of modern humans from Africa is unlikely, especially because younger specimens have been found in eastern Eurasia with similar feature patterns, Trinkaus said.

“The discovery promises to provide relevant paleontological data for our understanding of the emergence of modern humans in eastern Asia,” the researchers said.

They argue that the most likely explanation for the mix of features is interbreeding between early modern humans and the archaic populations of Europe and Asia.