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Before Europe, humans went to Asia: people reached China by 80,000 years ago, fossil teeth suggest.

Modern humans reached southern China at least 35,000 years before setting foot in Europe, new fossil finds suggest.

These discoveries provide the best evidence to date that Homo sapiens took its first major strides out of Africa deep in the Stone Age and headed east, staying within relatively warm regions similar to those of its East African homeland.

Excavations in southern China's Fuyan Cave produced 47 human teeth dating to between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago, paleoanthropologists report October 14 in Nature. The presence of Neandertals in Europe may have helped deter humans' migration to that continent until around 45,000 years ago, when Neandertal populations started to shrink, says a team led by Wu Liu and Xiu-jie Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Maria Martinon-Torres of University College London.

An early H. sapiens presence in China challenges the idea that modern humans moved eastward out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. It now appears more likely that H. sapiens left the continent as early as 120,000 years ago, dispersing east and south, from the Arabian Peninsula or the eastern Mediterranean, archaeologist Robin Dennell of the University of Exeter in England writes in Nature.

A hominid lower jaw previously found in southern China's Zhiren Cave dates to between 55,000 and 110,000 years ago. Researchers disagree about whether that find comes from a modern human or Homo erectus, a hominid with far older roots in East Asia.

It's not yet clear whether the human teeth from Fuyan Cave represent a variant of H. sapiens that included jawbones such as the one from Zhiren Cave, says paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis. Trinkaus, who coauthored a report on the Zhiren Cave find (SN: 8/25/12, p. 22), suspects ancient humans interbred with other Homo species on the way to East Asia. As a result, those populations would have displayed some unusual physical traits once they reached China.

Until now, the oldest well-accepted H. sapiens remains in East Asia, dating to 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, came from northern Laos (SN: 5/19/12, p. 14). Aside from the Fuyan Cave discoveries, the earliest Chinese H. sapiens fossils date to about 40,000 years ago.

Liu and his colleagues dated a stalagmite that formed just above fossil-bearing soil to about 80,000 years ago. That estimate rests on measurements of two radioactive decay products in the stalagmite. Animal bones found with the H. sapiens teeth, including remains of predatory cats, have previously been dated at other sites to no more than around 120,000 years ago.

All 47 modern human teeth from Fuyan Cave are relatively small, much like teeth of European H. sapiens from later in the Stone Age and present-day people, the researchers say. Fuyan teeth are shaped more like those of living human populations than like teeth of Neandertals or Asian H. erectus.

Caption: Recently excavated human teeth (shown) support the idea that Homo sapiens arrived in southern China more than 80,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years before Stone Age people entered Europe.


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Title Annotation:HUMANS & SOCIETY
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Nov 14, 2015
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