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The academic community has long held a consensus view of human origins in which modern humans descend entirely from African ancestors. Exactly who those ancestors might be, remained a mystery and in recent years the best candidate, Homo heidelbergensis, transpired to be only an ancestor of Neanderthals.
In recent years a stream of human fossil finds in East Asia have begun to challenge the consensus understanding of human origins and early migrations. Most of the problematic fossils are those of modern humans from between 120,000 to 80,000 years ago, placing our sub-species in China long before the hypothetical Out of Africa migration long-believed to be responsible for bringing modern humans into Eurasia. Not all the anomalous fossils are modern humans, some are much older examples of the Homo sapiens species, archaic forms that may be ancestral to Homo sapiens sapiens.
For more about Human origins check out The Into Africa Theory of Human Evolution.
Around 40 years ago a well-preserved hominin skull was uncovered in China’s Shaanxi province and given named the Dali skull. A Recent analysis of the 260,000-year-old Dali skull found astonishing accord with the earliest fossils found in Africa to be considered Homo sapiens, the Jebel Irhoud fossil remains in Morocco dated at around 300,000 years of age. The new data from China raises further doubts about a singular, African, origin for all modern humans.
Xinzhi Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing had long suspected that some Asia Homo erectus had shared DNA, Homo erectus must have shared DNA with Homo sapiens, based on physical similarities. Western academics tended to dismiss the multi-regional theories of Professor Xinzhi and his two notable collaborators, Professor Milford Wolpoff and Professor Alan Thorne (now deceased). Wu and a colleague, Sheela Athreya of Texas A&M University, carried out a modern reanalysis of the Dali skull and found that it was incredibly like two archaic Homo sapiens skulls known from the Moroccan fossil record.
Just five months ago the academic community was celebrating the revelation that a new analysis of an existing collection of fossils from the Jebel Irhoud site in Morroco had identified the skulls as 300,000-year-old members of a Homo sapiens sub-species. The new classification for Jebel Irhou fossils suggested these hominins were potentially ancestral to modern humans, giving further support for Africa as the region where our Homo sapiens story began. The Dali skull is set to overturn this understanding and relegate the Jebel hominins to being no more than one group of a hominin population distributes right across the planet, likely sharing genes across regions through interbreeding
It now appears that archaic Homo sapiens were not a genetically isolated population in Africa and that African hominins of their time were no more critical to the human story than were other groups living in China. The fact that the Dali skulls evidence more derived morphology than those at Jebel Irhoud may even point to a slightly more accelerated mutation rate in East Asia. The possibility exists that modern humans emerged first in the Asian region before migrating into Africa, the multiple discoveries of modern humans fossils mentioned earlier would seem to support just such a model.
“I think gene flow could have been multidirectional, so some of the traits seen in Europe or Africa could have originated in Asia,” Athreya told New Scientist.
Whatever certainty the Out of Africa theorists had gained from Jebel Irhoud has been erased by the data associated with the Dali skull. It may be that many fundamental characteristics associated with modern Homo sapiens developed first in East Asia. The work being carried out by Xinzhi and Athreya may completely rewrite the origins of our species as we know it.
“In a real sense we are talking about a multiregional population, connected recurrently by migration and genetic exchanges,” John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison told New Scientist.
Of course, none of this will come as a shock to readers of the book, The Into Africa Theory of Human Evolution, which has already rewritten the story of our human origins and pointed out considerable flaws in the Out of Africa theory. Readers of the book will know that there are other fossils of archaic Homo sapiens from China such as the Maba skull and Jinniushan skeleton, which will also likely be re-examined and bring further revelations.
Exactly where these Chinese and Morrocan hominins fit into our family tree remains uncertain, some are calling them early modern humans, but they sure are strange in appearance by our usual standards. Stay tuned for more paradigm busting updates.