María Martinón-Torres studying the Daoxian teeth at the IVPP in Beijing

María Martinón-Torres is a Leakey Foundation grantee from the University College London. She and her team were recently published in the journal Nature for their work in Southern China. She has been kind enough to provide us with her summary and thoughts on the significance of this find.

The discovery of 47 human teeth with unequivocally modern morphologies from a cave in southern China reveals that our species, H. sapiens, was present in Asia much earlier than expected. Dated between 80,000 and 120,000 years, the human fossils recovered at the Fuyan Cave (Daoxian) represent the earliest “fully modern” humans outside Africa.

Prior to this work, the earliest unambiguous evidence for H. sapiens east of the Arabian Peninsula came from Tianyuan Cave (Northern China), Niah Cave (Borneo) and Lake Mungo (Australia), dated to 40,000-50,000 years. In the Levant, the human fossils from Skhul and Qafzeh, dated to around 80,000-100,000 years, have been defined as “anatomically modern," meaning that they are in the root of our lineage but still preserve some primitive features that make them different from current modern human groups. In the same line, paleoanthropologist Tim White employed the expression “on verge of the anatomical modernity but not yet fully modern” to refer to the fossils found in Herto (Ethiopia); with 180,000 years, these represent the earliest hominin fossils known for our species. Thus, The Skhul and Qafzeh fossils have been interpreted by some researchers as evidence of a “failed dispersal,” as an Out of Africa attempt that barely managed to reach beyond the borders of the African continent. In this context, the majority of the scientific community agree that the true Out of Africa succeeded only 50,000-60,000 years ago, when modern human populations were finally able to expand throughout the world, reaching Australia and taking over the European empire from Neanderthals.

However, a minority of researchers have suggested the possibility that not one, but several Out of Africa events may have occurred. These successive migrations would have started earlier, during the first half of the Late Pleistocene and, probably, the first of them would have followed a southern route, through Arabia, instead of a northern one through the Levantine corridor. Most of the evidence they used to support this scenario was based on archaeological and climatic data. However, to verify this hypothesis conclusively, we were lacking “the corpse.” Fossils between the Levant and South East Asia are very scarce, and the lack of a reliable chrono-stratigraphic contexts and/or clear taxonomic identifications has been putting under quarantine all the hypotheses that needed a modern human in Asia more than 50,000 years ago.

One of the most representatives examples of this problem is the Zhiren mandible, also found in Southern China and dated (without unanimous agreement) to more than 100,000 years. According to the researchers that performed the study, the Zhiren sample belongs to H. sapiens, but the preservation of some archaic features has led to different interpretations. Hence, for some researchers Zhiren is the result of the hybridisation of H. sapiens with a primitive population, whereas for other scholars it represents a gracile H. erectus that survived late into the Late Pleistocene.

María Martinón-Torres, Liu Wu, José María Bermúdez de Castro and Wu Xiujie, visiting the Daoxian site last October

But now the quarantine is broken. Daoxian fossils fulfill all the requirements which other sites did not.

1) Their taxonomical attribution to H. sapiens is unequivocal.

Daoxian teeth are fully modern, morphologically closer to late Late Pleistocene or even contemporary populations than to other roughly contemporaneous specimens from Northern China (such as Xiujayao) or other anatomically modern human groups (such as Qafzeh).

2) Their chrono-stratigraphic context is robust.

The stratigraphy of the Daoxian cave is clear and simple. There are four well-defined horizontal stratigraphic layers that appear consistently throughout the 300 m2 of excavated area. Fossils are accumulated in layer 2, together with an abundant mammalian assemblage that includes several extinct taxa and which, as a whole, is typical of the first half of the Late Pleistocene. Layer 2 is sealed by a continuous flowstone (layer 1) that prevents the accumulation of younger sediments below, and which the paleomagnetic study confirms is in situ. This is important because it means that everything found below the flowstone – of particular interest the layer 2 where the human and fauna fossils were found – must be older than layer 1. Thus, the U/Th dating of a stalagmite that grew on top of the flowstone - and is hence younger than all the layers below - provides a minimum age of 80,000 years for all the sediments in Layer 2.  The type of associated fauna together with the dating of some loose speleothem fragments point to a conservative maximum age estimation of 120,000 years.

The discovery of H. sapiens to the "East of Eden" where the mithocondrial Eve was first found opens a fascinating range of hypotheses and scenarios to investigate.

1) If H. sapiens’ origin is African, the Daoxian evidence suggests that H. sapiens left before expected and that there may have been not one but several Out of Africa dispersals. It also means that there are a lot of unresolved questions about the routes of dispersals and the fate/type of interaction that each of these hominin waves went through.

2) While Northern China was settled by more primitive hominins, Southern China was witnessing the arrival and/or evolution of more derived humans. This means that when H. sapiens enters the Asian scene the continent was still inhabited by a different hominin.

3) The find also poses questions about who are the immediate ancestors of current populations. Although the fossil evidence keeps pointing to Africa as the birthplace of anatomically modern humans, we still have to investigate the fate of each of these dispersals. Can be that some current H. sapiens populations are descendants of these early immigrants? Or are we basically descendants of a later exodus through the Levantine corridor? Can be both hypotheses complementary? The genetic evidence has been typically the strongest argument to defend a recent African origin for all H. sapiens.  However, as suggested by Groucutt and his team (Evolutionary Anthropology 24, 2015) it seems that there are at least two scenarios where the genetic evidence is theoretically compatible with an early out of Africa - and even a back-into-Africa - dispersal, through extensive gene flow between African and non-African H. sapiens. These hypotheses, although attractive, pose complex phylogeographic scenarios that are less parsimonious and straightforward to match with available genetic evidence. Still, molecular evidence itself has been changing our evolutionary perspective leading us to consider scenarios, such as the hybridization of H. sapiens and Neanderthals, that were sort of “unthinkable” some years ago, mostly for the geneticists themselves. Hence, it may be the time to think ahead and be creative, time to leave the “comfort zone” and explore alternatives that may be wrong... or may be right. I welcome brave thinking as it is the only way to discover something new.

4) H. sapiens took twice the time to enter Europe that it took to enter Asia. The fascinating coincidence between the arrival of H. sapiens to Europe and the Neanderthal disappearance has been commonly interpreted as evidence of the superiority of modern humans, as their presence would have led to H. neanderthalensis extinction. However, the story may have a radically different reading. If modern humans were already at the gates of Europe about 100,000 years ago, why were they not able to enter until 45,000 years ago?

María Martinón-Torres, Xing Song, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Lui Wu and Wu Xiujie in the Fuyan village at Daoxian

Maybe H. sapiens did not enter because they were not capable of doing so while Neanderthals were there. Was Europe to small for the two of them? For almost half of a million years, H. neanderthalensis had dominated the land of seasons, of changing skies and long winters making of it an impenetrable kingdom for a tropical human. This Neanderthal advantage, however, was also their own executioner. Neanderthal’s story is the chronicle of a death foretold. The merciless and cyclic punishment of the glacial ice ended up decimating a population that was genetically exhausted due to isolation and endless winters. Neanderthals were no longer who they used to be, and only now, H. sapiens saw his opportunity.  

This is only the beginning. I excitedly foresee a scientifically prosperous and creative period when the story of human evolution in Asia will end up intertwining with the mainstream and, in more than one occasion, will pull the centre. 

Click here to read the full article.

Para una versión en español, visita por favor el enlace en la página web del Museo de la Evolución Humana.  

Wu Liu, María Martinón-Torres, Yan-jun Cai, Song Xing, Hao-wen Tong, Shu-wen Pei, Mark Jan Sier, Xiao-hong Wu, R. Lawrence Edwards, Hai Cheng, Yi-yuan Li, Xiong-xin Yang, José María Bermúdez de Castro & Xiu-jie Wu (2015). The earliest unequivocally modern human in South China. Nature.   

AuthorH Gregory
CategoriesJournal Article

By Jeremy DeSilva of Boston University.

Jeremy will discuss the question "Why walk on two legs?" along with Brian Richmond during a SciCafe at the American Museum of Natural History on April 1, 2015. This article is an excellent introduction to the pros and cons of bipedalism.

Humans are weird. We are mammals, yet we have very little body hair. We are primates, yet unlike most primates, we are generally uncomfortable in the trees. Like other animals, our brain is energetically expensive to grow and maintain, yet unlike other animals, we have somehow been able to evolve a brain six times larger than expected for our size. And, perhaps oddest of all, humans navigate their world perched up on extended hindlimbs. 

Look around you today. You might see cats, dogs, squirrels, or cows. They, and most other mammals, move around on all-fours. Humans? Nope—we have released our front limbs from the duties of locomotion and left that responsibility entirely to the hindlimbs. Certainly if this behavior, and the accompanying anatomical adaptations, have evolved in the human lineage, it must have been beneficial for our ancestors. But, evolutionarily speaking, “good ideas” tend to evolve multiple times in different lineages—something called convergent evolution. For instance, the streamlined body form of sharks, marlin, ichthyosaurs and dolphins independently evolved because it is the biomechanically most efficient shape for navigating quickly through the water. The wings of bats, birds, and butterflies allow different lineages to have independently taken to the skies. 


But, what about bipedalism? While many mammals can certainly rise up on two legs and even take a few steps (think about a threatening bear, or a vigilant meerkat), there is no other mammal that habitually strides around on its back legs like humans do. Now, that is not to say we are the only animals who do this. Ostriches and other large terrestrial birds are also striding bipeds and so were their theropod dinosaur ancestors. While over 300 million years of evolution separate the ancestors of birds and mammals, the comparison between humans and terrestrial birds is not entirely useless. It allows us to see what evolution can do in a few hundred million years (the time it has taken for birds to refine bipedalism) versus a mere 5 million (the length of time our own lineage has been bipedal). And it is therefore instructive to compare the foot of an ostrich to your own. 


The human foot is composed of 26 bones. With your two feet, you have 52 bones in your feet—this means that roughly a quarter of all of the bones in your skeleton are in your feet. When two bones come together, they form a joint. And, motion is possible at joints—in fact, the 26 bones in your foot result in 33 joints in the foot and lots of potential for motion.  This seems a tad odd given that you need your feet to be a stable platform that converts into a rigid lever when you push-off the ground. What about ostriches? Well, all of the bones of the ankle and the sole of the foot have fused together into a single rigid structure called the tarsometatarus. The toes are reduced in number, and in total, there are only 8 bones in an ostrich foot. In fact, the foot of an ostrich looks a lot like the new design for human foot prosthetics—a single, flexible, but rigid “blade” that stores and releases elastic energy during gait and a stable, rigid base for propulsion. If ostriches and engineers have figured out this “design”, why does the human foot look the way it does? 

The answer is that evolution does not create the best “design” out of scratch. Evolution does not create perfection. It molds previous structures to produce anatomies just good enough to survive. Humans do not have feet like ostriches because our lineage has not been feathered and bipedal for 250 million years. Instead, we evolved from apes. These apes benefitted from having mobile feet, with lots of moving joints, to assist with navigation through the trees. That is the raw material from which the human foot evolved and evolution can only jerry-rig these pre-existing structures. How? Ligaments and subtle shape differences of certain foot bones have resulted in a slightly stiffer and less mobile foot in humans compared to modern apes, or our ape ancestors. This is the evolutionary equivalent of using duct-tape and paper clips to stiffen up an otherwise quite mobile structure. But, it works- kind of. 

Podiatry (foot medicine) is a billion dollar industry. Humans twist and sprain their ankles; we suffer from collapsed arches, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, bunions, and hammer-toes. Let’s face it, everyone has foot problems, and if you don’t yet, just wait. Undoubtedly, some of these ailments are a result of our wearing restrictive shoes. But, there are fossils of early human ancestors (who undoubtedly did not wear shoes) with healed ankle fractures, sprained ankles, flat feet, compression fractures, and other foot problems humans suffer from today. These afflictions have been with us from the very beginnings our unusual form of locomotion and they will continue to be with us for millennia. Why? Because we walk on modified ape feet. It is not an anatomy one would design from scratch, because we were not designed from scratch. We evolved and we retain our ape legacy all through our bodies, including in our feet. 

When your feet ache after a long day, or your shin splints flare after a short jog, you may want to curse your ancestors. But, I think you should instead thank them. Without their survival, there is no “you”, or even “us”. And, they had it much, much worse. When you break your foot, or have a severe case of plantar fasciitis, you can go to a hospital or visit your podiatrist. But, there was no such thing as a podiatrist on the predator-laden African savannah 3 million years-ago. So, how did our ancestors survive in such conditions? How did a broken ankle not guarantee death for these individuals? Certainly some of these individuals became leopard food, but we have fossil evidence that these injuries often healed. How? I propose that these fossils are evidence that as far back as 3 million years-ago, our ancestors were taking care of one another in a rather human-like way. It is just possible that the development of care and compassion in our human ancestors—qualities we hold so dear and regard as so human-like—may have developed in the context of our imperfect “design”. Bipedalism may have only worked as an evolutionary innovation in a lineage that already caring to some degree for the sick and injured. Compassion would have thus evolved as a by-product of, among other things, moving around bipedally on faulty equipment. It is a tough hypothesis to scientifically test, but worth consideration. And while you do just that, please sit—those feet could use a rest.  

Jeremy DeSilva is a functional morphologist and Professor of Anthropology at Boston University. He'll be giving a talk with Brian Richmond at the American Museum of Natural History on April 1, 2015. For more details on that see our Calendar. Admission is free.

AuthorMeredith Johnson
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Leakey Foundation grantees Israel Hershkovitz and Ofer Marder led an international team of archaeologists who discovered a 55,000 year old cranium in Manot Cave in Israel. Their discovery was described last week in the journal Nature

Photo courtesy of : Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Photo courtesy of : Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

A key event in human evolution was the expansion of modern humans of African origin across Eurasia, replacing all other forms of hominin (humans and their predecessors) around 40,000-60,000 years ago. However, due to the scarcity of human fossils from this period, the path these ancestors took as they expanded out of Africa has largely remained a mystery.

Interior of Manot Cave. Photo courtesy of Amos Frumkin / Hebrew University Cave Research Center

Interior of Manot Cave. Photo courtesy of Amos Frumkin / Hebrew University Cave Research Center

The Manot Cave finding provides the first fossil evidence from the critical period when genetic and archaeological models predict that African modern humans successfully migrated out of Africa and populated Eurasia. It is also the first fossil evidence that there were populations of modern humans living near populations of Neanderthals in the Levant during the late Middle Paleolithic. This leads some to speculate that the Manot Cave people could be the population that initially bred with Neanderthals, giving all modern non-African people a little bit of Neanderthal DNA.

The Leakey Foundation recently awarded Ofer Marder of Ben-Gurion University a research grant to fund further excavation of Manot Cave. We are thrilled to be funding the exploration of this important site. We look forward to sharing news of more discoveries. 

The research appears in the journal Nature under the title "Levantine cranium from Manot Cave (Israel) foreshadows the first European modern humans" (DOI 10.1038/nature14134).

Inside the Manot Cave in Israel's Galilee, where a 55,000-year-old skull sheds new light on human migration patterns. Photo courtesy of: Amos Frumkin / Hebrew University Cave Research Center

Inside the Manot Cave in Israel's Galilee, where a 55,000-year-old skull sheds new light on human migration patterns. Photo courtesy of: Amos Frumkin / Hebrew University Cave Research Center

You can learn more about the discoveries at Manot Cave in the following articles:

"Skull Fossil Offers New Clues on Human Journey From Africa", New York Times.

"Neanderthals gain human neighbor", Nature.

AuthorMeredith Johnson
CategoriesIn the News