China's Earliest Modern Human Found

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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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