Category Archives: paleoanthropology

Homo sapiens was in China before 100,000 years ago!

This finding consolidates the recent dating of African-like industries of India to c. 96,000 years ago, as well as other previous discoveries from mostly China, and, jointly, they totally out-date not just the ridiculous “60 Ka ago” mantra for the migration out-of-Africa (which we know is dated to c. 125,000 years ago in Arabia and Palestine) but also the previous estimates of c. 80,000 years ago for India (Petraglia 2007).
Guanjung Shen et al., Mass spectrometric U-series dating of Huanglong Cave in Hubei Province, central China: Evidence for early presence of modern humans in eastern Asia. Journal of Human Evolution, 2013. Freely accessible at the time of writing thisLINK [doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.05.002]


Most researchers believe that anatomically modern humans (AMH) first appeared in Africa 160-190 ka ago, and would not have reached eastern Asia until ∼50 ka ago. However, the credibility of these scenarios might have been compromised by a largely inaccurate and compressed chronological framework previously established for hominin fossils found in China. Recently there has been a growing body of evidence indicating the possible presence of AMH in eastern Asia ca. 100 ka ago or even earlier. Here we report high-precision mass spectrometric U-series dating of intercalated flowstone samples from Huanglong Cave, a recently discovered Late Pleistocene hominin site in northern Hubei Province, central China. Systematic excavations there have led to the in situ discovery of seven hominin teeth and dozens of stone and bone artifacts. The U-series dates on localized thin flowstone formations bracket the hominin specimens between 81 and 101 ka, currently the most narrow time span for all AMH beyond 45 ka in China, if the assignment of the hominin teeth to modern Homo sapiens holds. Alternatively this study provides further evidence for the early presence of an AMH morphology in China, through either independent evolution of local archaic populations or their assimilation with incoming AMH. Along with recent dating results for hominin samples from Homo erectus to AMH, a new extended and continuous timeline for Chinese hominin fossils is taking shape, which warrants a reconstruction of human evolution, especially the origins of modern humans in eastern Asia.

The range of dates for the teeth is ample but the oldest one is of 102.1 ± 0.9 Ka ago. Other dates are very close to this one: 99.5 ± 2.2, 99.3 ± 1.6, 96.8 ± 1.0, etc. (see table 1), so there can be little doubt about their accuracy. 
The Huanglong teeth (various views)
Now, how solidly can these teeth be considered to belong to the species Homo sapiens? Very solidly it seems:

The seven hominin teeth from Huanglong Cave have been assigned to AMH
mainly because of their generally more advanced morphology than that of H. erectus and other archaic populations (Liu et al., 2010b),
especially in terms of the crown breath/length index. These teeth also
lack major archaic suprastructural characteristics listed by Bermúdez de Castro (1988)
for eastern Asian mid-Pleistocene hominins, such as “strong tuberculum
linguale (incisors), marked lingual inclination of the buccal face
(incisors and canines), buccal cingulum (canines and molars), wrinkling
(molars), taurodontism (molars), swelling of the buccal faces (molars)”
(Tim Compton, Personal communication). However, in their roots, these
teeth still retain a few archaic features, being more robust and
complicated than those of modern humans (Liu et al., 2010b).

Zhirendong jaw
Let’s not forget that further South in China, in Zhirendong, a “modern” jaw was found and dated to c. 100,000 years ago as well.
As for the so-called “molecular clock”:

The new timeline for human evolution in China is in disagreement with
the molecular clock that posits a late appearance for AMH in eastern
Asia (e.g., Chu et al., 1998).

… too bad for the “clock”, because a clock that doesn’t inform us of time with at least some accuracy is totally useless.

"Modern human behavior" is out, generic human potential is in

There is a hypothetical model in Prehistory on something vague and ethereal which has been called “Modern human behavior” (MHB). It’s not about nuclear weapons, Internet addiction nor commuting to work; it’s not either about the printing machine, the Industrial Revolution and the ideals of Human Rights; it’s not even about farming, living in cities and through sailing the seas… it’s about something extremely vague and ill-defined but which, by definition would set apart “modern humans” (H. sapiens) from “archaic humans” (other Homo species, particularly Neanderthals).
While it is almost intangible and every day more dubious, a large number of prehistorians, some as notorious as Mellars, Stringer or Bar-Yosef, strikingly influenced by religious ideas setting an arbitrarily absolutist line between “humans” (i.e. Homo sapiens) and the rest (including other humans), have insisted for decades on the validity of such notion. Now three researchers challenge the model radically:
Christopher J. H. James, Julien Riel-Salvatore & Benjamin R. Collins, Why We Need an Alternative Approach to the Study of Modern Human Behaviour. Canadian Journal of Archaeology Volume 37, Issue 1 (2013). Pay per viewLINK


In this paper we review recent developments in the debate over the emergence of modern human behaviour (MHB) to show that despite considerable diversity among competing models, the identification of given material traits still underpins almost all current perspectives. This approach, however, allows assumptions over the biological relationship between archaic and modern humans to permeate the definitions of MHB and, as a result, has effectively stultified archaeology’s potential contribution to the issue. We suggest that the concept of MHB as currently defined is flawed. It must either be redefined in strictly behavioural terms before reincorporation into the debate over modern human origins or, more productively, discarded all together to avoid the harsh and unrealistic dichotomy it creates between a modern and non-modern archaeological record.
They essentially argue that: that the model (of which there are several, often contradictory variants) is extremely useless and confusing, that there are “archaic humans” with many or even all traits of MHB and there are “modern humans” without many or even most of them.
They tentatively argue for a throughout revision of the model but then they seem to lean rather for the whole abandonment of the idea suggesting instead a mosaic and punctuated evolution pattern that is socio-cultural rather than merely genetic or essentialist:

(…) the rapidly accumulating evidence for a mosaic pattern of behavioural change (…) and the evidence of behavioural advances appearing and rapidly disappearing in the MSA, make the harsh dichotomy model untenable. What it does suggest is a punctuated or saltation model that led to widespread adoption of more complex behavioural patterns once the demographic circumstances were appropriate (…).

Somehow this made me recall one of my all-time favorite bands: Suicidal Tendencies and their 1990 hit “Disco’s out, murder’s in” (surely not apt for pop, techno and folk music lovers):

Ardipithecus ramidus’ skull is hominin

Ardi’s skull reconstructed
(CC by T. Michael Keesey)
I recently mentioned that Sahelanthropus tchadiensis ‘Toumaï’ was quite clearly within the hominini biological tribe, i.e. in the line leading to us and not anymore in the one leading to chimpanzees and bonobos. Now I have to echo the claim that a more recent being, Ardipithecus ramidus ‘Ardi’ also seems to have skull characteristics that place it in the hominin group. 
While the relevance of Toumaï’s grouping is much greater, because it help us to clarify the issue of Pan-Homo divergence dates, which seems to be of the order of c. 8-13 million years ago (Langergraber 2012), the case of Ardi is not without interest anyhow in the understanding of human evolution. 

By examining 79 skull bases of chimps, gorillas, modern humans and ancient hominids, Kimbel’s group identified relationships among anatomical landmarks that distinguish apes from people and hominids. The researchers estimated the total length of A. ramidus’ skull bottom and found that it fell within a range characteristic of hominids, not apes.

As in more recent members of the Australopithecus genus, such as the 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton nicknamed Lucy, Ardipithecus ramidus displays a relatively short, humanlike skull base, Kimbel said.

A new 3-D analysis of Ardi’s previously reconstructed pelvis, also presented April 11 at the anthropology meeting, finds a mix of monkey, ape and hominid characteristics. Although not confirming a consistently upright gait, this version of Ardi’s hips doesn’t undermine her proposed hominid status, said Nicole Webb of City University of New York, who led the research.

As for Ardi’s disputed mode of travel, she probably had a two-legged gait “but didn’t use her hands much while upright,” said Caley Orr of Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Ill., who didn’t participate in the new research. 

While Ardipithecus ramidus is dated to c. 4.4 Ma BP, there is another specimen of the same genus, Ardipithecus kadabba, dated to c. 5,7 Ma.

Ref. AAPA 2013 meeting (abstracts):

  • W. Kimbel et al. Ardipithecus ramidus and the evolution of the human cranial base.
  • N. Webb et al. An analysis of the Ardipithecus ramidus pelvis reconstruction using 3D geometric morphometric techniques.

Posted by on April 22, 2013 in human evolution, paleoanthropology


Brain shape favors ‘Toumaï’ as a human ancestor

The seven million years old Sahelanthropus tchadensis (i.e. Sahel man from Chad), nicknamed Toumaï, already had a hominin structure in its small brain:

… though Toumaï’s brain was apelike in its small size, it was apparently
homininlike in other ways. In a presentation given on April 2 at the
annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society, Bienvenu reported that
the endocast shows strongly posteriorly projecting occipital lobes, a
tilted brainstem, and a laterally expanded prefrontal cortex, among
other hominin brain characteristics.
Other human-like traits in Toumaï are small canines and the forward position of its foramen magnum (where the backbone connects to the skull), which suggest upright walking, which is now argued to be related to brain reorganization. 
This clearly confirms, as I have insisted so much, that the Pan-Homo divergence date is necessarily older than 7 million years, because Toumaï  was already closer to us than chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living relatives.

An infant’s milk tooth from Orce is the earliest known human remain in West Europe

The discovery was made in 2002 but is only to be published in a formal paper now, at the Journal of Human Evolution (not yet published, it seems). The molar from a young child of, possibly, Homo erectus, habilis or, if you wish, georgicus was found in the Cave of Orce (Granada province, Andalusia) and dated to c. 1.4 million years ago, being therefore the most ancient human inhabitant known in Western Europe. 

This finding correspond to Oldowan findings by Catalan archaeologist Josep Gibert, which he dated to c. 1.5-1.8 Ma ago but that other scholars prefer to date somewhat more recently (1.2 Ma ago?) The Gibert dates in any case correlate well with the recent discovery of H. georgicus and the general estimate for the first migrations out of Africa by H. habilis/erectus, dated also to c. 1.8 Ma ago. 
“Orce Man” scapula
It would also add some support to the claim by Gibert of a bone found in that same cave in 1983 being part of the skull of an archaic human, the so-called Orce Man, which he dated to 1.3 Ma. Back in the day the finding was strongly contested and even claimed to be an equid’s scapula, however the debate has not yet settled and it seems that these days only creationists are heavily opposed to Orce Man being real, while the scientific establishment remains divided. 
Whatever the case, if Orce Man was real, this kid could well have been his direct ancestor.
Sources[es/cat]: Pileta (incl. videos); Catalan Institute of Human Paleontology (IPHES) → blog (many photos), press release; 20 Minutos.


The son of Josep Gibert, Luis, laments in interview by press agency EFE (published today at Diario Vasco, for example) that some people (in direct reference to IPHES’ director) still discredit his father’s work but he feels happy about the tooth finding.

He argues that it cannot be the scapula of a ruminant among other reasons because these animals have a much thicker skull than us humans.

He also feels personally affected because he had hoped that his team could have obtained a license to work in the Orce area but the Andalusian authorities have only produced one single license for one single team.

(Via Pileta again).

Update (Mar 23): Gibert controversy delays publication

Publication of the relevant paper has been delayed after Luis Gibert asked the Journal of Human Evolution why a tooth fragment, dated to 1.25 Ma., published by his father Josep in Human Evolution 1999 (now extinct), is not even mentioned. Other works by Josep Gibert on Olduwayan tools found in the very same site of Barranco de León with dates as old as 1.5 Ma. are also ignored in the study’s text and bibliography. For these reasons Elsevier has decided to provisionally pull back the publication until these works are cited.

Paul Palmqvist, one of the members of the team currently digging at Orce, laments the decision on the grounds that the tooth fragment found by Gibert is not at all conclusively human.

It is a fragment of tooth enamel that in my opinion belonged to a hippopotamus, he said.

Luis Gibert claims that the humanity of the tooth was confirmed to his father in a telephone conversation by reputed archaeologist José María Bermúdez de Castro, however this one denies such thing ever happening and the humanity of the Gibert molar fragment. He also attacked the defunct publication Human Evolution as a third tier magazine, a parochial flier in which everything was allowed.

Source: Paleorama en Red[es].

Update (Mar 25):

Ama Ata dedicates today an entry to a documentary (in Spanish, 1hr long, split in four videos) titled Orce Man, homage to Josep Gibert. It is interesting to realize that many scientists are supportive of the position of Gibert, very notably Yves Coppens, discoverer of famous australopitecine Lucy, who says that Josep died too young (in 2007) because otherwise he might have lived to see the triumph of his theories.

The real issue seems to be that in the early 80s, there was a widespread belief in the Academic establishment on Europe had not being inhabited by any kind of humans until some 500,000 years ago. This finding did not only more than double those dates (something now widely accepted) but Gibert was even suggesting that they might have arrived by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, something that even today some find hard to believe for Homo erectus.

However the skull fragment was widely accepted initially as real. But then a small “occipital crest” was found in it, what led Lumbley to argue that it was a horse instead. Gibert lamented that instead of communicating this to him or otherwise debating cleanly, the French leaked this to the press surreptitiously and pulled strings within the circles of power of the Academia, a similar method of pseudoscientific disqualification by established “armchair scientists” to calumniate the findings of Iruña-Veleia.


Million years old human remains from Eritrea

Fragments of a human skull dated to some one million years ago have been found at Muhuli Amo, Eritrea. They are probably correlated with a previous finding of hundreds of Acheulean tools. 

The skull fragments found

Sources: The Archaeology Network, Pileta, Noticias de Prehistoria[es].


Ancient Homo sapiens from Laos (46-63,000 years ago)

Tam-Pa-Ling skull
While this is not the only nor even probably the oldest remain of the so-called anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens, our kin) in Eastern or SE Asia, it seems to be the less controversial one so far, what should help to consolidate our knowledge of the period of colonization of the Eurasian region East of Bengal.
Fabrice Demeter et al., Anatomically modern human in Southeast Asia (Laos) by 46 ka. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (6 months embargo) ··> LINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1208104109]
Uncertainties surround the timing of modern human emergence and occupation in East and Southeast Asia. Although genetic and archeological data indicate a rapid migration out of Africa and into Southeast Asia by at least 60 ka, mainland Southeast Asia is notable for its absence of fossil evidence for early modern human occupation. Here we report on a modern human cranium from Tam Pa Ling, Laos, which was recovered from a secure stratigraphic context. Radiocarbon and luminescence dating of the surrounding sediments provide a minimum age of 51–46 ka, and direct U-dating of the bone indicates a maximum age of ∼63 ka. The cranium has a derived modern human morphology in features of the frontal, occipital, maxillae, and dentition. It is also differentiated from western Eurasian archaic humans in aspects of its temporal, occipital, and dental morphology. In the context of an increasingly documented archaic–modern morphological mosaic among the earliest modern humans in western Eurasia, Tam Pa Ling establishes a definitively modern population in Southeast Asia at ∼50 ka cal BP. As such, it provides the earliest skeletal evidence for fully modern humans in mainland Southeast Asia.
Some more details can be found at the press release by the University of Illinois (h/t Pileta).
There are some skulls and skull fragments from East Asia that can be actually older than this one but they may be less straightforward either in their dating or their identification as Homo sapiens:
  • Liujiang skull (at Don’s Maps, at P. Brown’s site, at Bradshaw Foundation), from Guangxi-Zhuang, is clearly a modern Homo sapiens but the exact date is not known because it was originally dug with very limited means. Recent datings of nearby sediment suggest an age of 68-139 Ka but this is hotly debated.
  • Zhirendong jaw (at this blog, at PhysOrg), also from Guangxi-Zhuang and dated to before 100,000 years ago (110,000 years ago according to first reports), is argued to be a modern Homo sapiens but its very ancient date and some unavoidable ambiguity of such limited skeletal evidence allow for some skepticism, if you are so inclined.
  • Callao cave metatarsal (foot) bone (at Leherensuge) is dated to before 67,000 years ago and comes from Luzon, the largest Filipino island, but because of its small size cannot be ascribed to any human species safely. All we can say is that they knew how to use rafts or boats – but then Homo floresiensis (H. erectus?) did too. 
  • Also some non-skeletal evidence to consider:

Whichever is your personal take, it is clear that this skull adds up in support of a very old colonization of East Asia. The question is: exactly how old?

Update: a creative reconstruction by H. Zänder: