Fossilised human teeth discovered in a cave in China are evidence that modern humans reached Asia earlier than it was previously believed. The finding also proves that it took other tens of thousands of years before humans colonised Europe, according to researchers.
Scientists say that modern humans originated in Africa some 200,000 years ago, but their dispersal form the African continent has long been debated amongst experts.
The results of a previous research showed that modern humans left Africa about 40,000 to 70,000 years ago. However, a more recent research suggests that the exodus from Africa may be traced as far as 130,000 years back.
A total number of 47 human teeth were found in the Fuyan Cave – which is located in the Hunan province in southern China – during excavations that were conducted between 2011 and 2013.
The researchers analysed the teeth and found that they were about 80,000 to 120,000 years old, which makes them the oldest modern human fossils to ever be found in China to this day. Previous modern human fossil discoveries were no older than 45,000 years.
“Our discovery, together with other research findings, suggests southern China should be the key, central area for the emergence and evolution of modern humans in East Asia,” Wu Liu, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, said.
These teeth are much smaller than other human teeth of similar age that were found both in Asia (specifically China) and Africa. They resemble more the teeth of modern humans, so it could be that different kinds of humans – modern kinds in the south and archaic kinds in the north – cohabited on the territory of what is now modern-day China.
The new discovery may help scientists figure out why modern humans reached Europe relatively late. Current evidence shows that they arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago.
María Martinón-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist, medical and forensic anthropologist at University College London in the United Kingdom, said that the Neanderthals that used to live in Europe during those times may have hindered modern humans from getting into Europe. It is possible that Homo sapiens only made it into Europe after the Neanderthals went extinct.
Another reason for the late arrival may be that modern humans have first colonised the southern parts of Asia, before heading to the northern areas in Europe, because the southern climate was warmer and more welcoming, according to Robin Dennell, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.
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