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Human origins recede in southern Asia.

Human origins recede in southern Asia

Scientists have identified southern Asias's earliest known remains of anatomically modern humans, dating to approximately 28,000 years ago, according to a report in the June CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY.

"We now know the southernmost part of Asia was inhabited by modern humans at a time relatively contemporary with anatomically modern Homo sapiens fossils recovered from sites in Europe, Africa and Australia," says anthropologist Kenneth A.R. kennedy of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Researchers excavated the Asian fossils - as well as 17 miniature stone blades, the remains of several animal species, a number of bone tools, bits of charcoal and fragments of quartz and chert - in 1982 in a cave on Sri Lanka, an island off the southeastern coast of India. Sri Lankan archaeologist Siran U. Deraniyagala conducted the excavation, then analyzed the remains in collaboration with Kennedy.

Human skeletal remains include a lower jaw bone, skull fragments and several hand bones. The bones show signs of exposure to fire, Kennedy says. This is more likely due to their proximity to hearths than to intentional cremation, he asserts.

The stone blades, or microliths, are also the earliest such artifacts found in southern Asia. Each triangular or crescent-shaped microlith is about the size of a fingernail. The cave dwellers apparently set 10 to 20 microliths into the groove of a shaft at the end of a harpoon or spear, Kennedy says. Modern H. sapiens began using these weapons around 30,000 years ago as barbs that killed animals more effectively than single spear points.

Animal remains in the cave include unidentified cats about the size of a lynx, as well as beavers, fish and birds. Kennedy says inhabitants may have butchered these relatively easily hunted creatures outside the cave, bringing in choice pieces for cooking.

The researchers detected no ruins of a hearth in the cave. Nevertheless, in Kennedy's view, the charcoal in the prehistoric sediment most likely resulted from human-produced fire, since natural fires would have had difficulty spreading into the recesses of the cave. Three independent laboratories have confirmed the charcoal's radiocarbon dates, he adds.

Deraniyagala's team also found stone tools and charcoal in six sediment levels above the layer containing the 28,000-year-old humans. More complete human skeletons recovered in 1981 from one of those levels date to about 16,000 years ago. No other site in southern Asia has yielded a fossil record of anatomically modern humans as large and as old as those in the Sri Lankan cave, Kennedy says.
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Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 24, 1989
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