China's Earliest Modern Human Found

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 3, 2007
An early modern human from China dated to about 40,000 years ago adds to evidence that the first Homo sapiens sapiens occasionally mated with older human species such as Neandertals.

The remains—which represent the oldest known example of modern humans found in China—share a few characteristics with older human species, according to a new study.

Other experts have argued that early modern humans and Neandertals were genetically distinct and therefore couldn't interbreed.

Such findings support the long-held theory that modern humans out-competed and eventually replaced other species as the modern humans spread out of Africa (explore an interactive map of human migration).

But the Chinese skeleton and similarly dated specimens from Europe and Asia have traits that had already been lost in the earliest modern humans found in Africa, said Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

If the replacement theory is correct, the 40,000-year-old skeletons should look like modern human fossils from Africa or slightly more evolved, he explained.

"What we find is overwhelmingly they do," he said. "But these archaic characteristics that had been lost in African moderns keep popping up."

Archaic Traits

The remains of the newfound early modern human were discovered in Tianyuan Cave near Beijing in 2003.

Trinkaus and colleagues with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their findings in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Based on radiocarbon analysis, the team dated the skeleton to about 42,000 to 38,500 years ago.

The specimen is about the same age as an early modern human from Romania, which Trinkaus and colleagues described in a paper this past January, and another skeleton from a cave in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Each of the specimens, according to Trinkaus, is an early modern human with a few archaic characteristics.

The skeleton from China, for example, has a genetically determined dental feature common in Neandertals that is not present in early modern humans from Africa.

"When we look at this new Chinese specimen, what we see is the archaic in tooth proportions. The individual has relatively large, big front teeth," he said.

The China specimen also has the spatula-shaped, rounded fingertips common among older human ancestors, instead of the narrow fingertips of early modern humans from Africa.

The wristbones, as well, display archaic features, Trinkaus said.

"So it's a couple of little features like this that show up in this individual. And so yes, it's a modern human, but given the earlier African modern humans, it's not just what you would expect," he said.

Open Minded

Chris Stringer is the head of the human-origins program at the Natural History Museum in London, England.

He said the Chinese skeleton is an important find that will help document the process of how modern humans became established in the region.

However, he is unconvinced that the skeletal analysis is proof of interbreeding between early modern humans from Africa and more archaic species.

"The problem is that we lack decent samples of early modern humans from Africa between [40,000 and] 80,000 years ago," he commented in an email.

But the appropriate skeletal evidence is not yet represented in the fossil record, he said.

"I will keep an open mind on the extent of hypothesized admixture, while noting the interesting fact that this skeleton shows the same linear physique as early European and Israeli early moderns—a physique that may reflect a recent African origin," he said.

Study co-author Trinkaus said the early modern human found in Malaysia in the 1950s was first described as resembling Melanesians and native Australians.

This supports the notion that earlier human species living in the region were absorbed via interbreeding as Homo sapiens spread out of Africa.

"There are just a couple of data points there, but it's very hard for me to explain the anatomy we see in both [the Malaysian and Chinese] specimens without saying, Yes indeed, people do what people do: that is, they get it together," he said.

And sometimes when it comes to selecting mates, he added, "people are not very choosy."

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