New analysis revises earliest Homo sapiens presence in East Asia

Some of China’s oldest Homo sapiens remains are about 10 times younger than previously thought.

Skeletal remains of a modern human discovered in 1958 were found in southern China’s Liujiang District. It was previously thought that the remains were up to 227,000 years old. It is thought modern humans began their trek out of Africa about 300,000 years ago.

Map of china
Location of Tongtianyan cave (Liujiang) in Guangxi Province, southern China, together with the location of other key fossils of Homo sapiens in China. Credit: J. Ge et al., Nature Communications.

Now a re-analysis of the bones published in Nature Communications has revised the estimate age of the Chinese remains to between 33,000 and 23,000 years ago.

“These revised age estimates align with dates from other human fossils in northern China, suggesting a geographically widespread presence of H. sapiens across Eastern Asia after 40,000 years ago,” says co-author Michael Petraglia, a professor at Australia’s Griffith University.

The team’s reassessment is based on radiocarbon and other techniques: optically stimulated luminescence, which measures how long it has been since sediments have been exposed to sunlight, and U-series dating which is another radiometric technique which uses uranium isotopes instead of carbon.

“This finding holds significant implications for understanding human dispersals and adaptations in the region,” says lead author Junyi Ge from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It challenges previous interpretations and provides insights into the occupation history of China.”

Debate continues as to when modern humans made it out of Africa, where we evolved about 300,000 years ago, to East Asia.

Fossil teeth found in southern China’s Fuyan Cave are suggested to be 80,000–120,000 years old. Other finds support the idea that Homo sapiens have been in China for at least 40,000 years.

It is believed that modern humans arrived in Australia about 65,000 years ago.

Besides Homo sapiens, however, other ancient humans made it to East Asia much earlier.

Remains found near Beijing belonging to a Homo erectus individual known as “Peking Man” are between 230,000 and 780,000 years old. Other hominin finds in China are nearly 2 million years old.

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