The origins of our species might need a rethink. An analysis of an ancient skull from China suggests it is eerily similar to the earliest known fossils of our species –found in Morocco, some 10,000 kilometres to the west. The skull hints that modern humans aren’t solely descended from African ancestors, as is generally thought.
Most anthropologists believe, based on fossil evidence, that our species arose in Africa around 200,000 years ago. What’s more, genetic studies of modern humans indicate that we are all descended from a single population that left Africa within the last 120,000 years and spread around the world. This African group is the source of all modern human genes, barring a few we picked up by interbreeding with other species like Neanderthals.
However, the Dali skull may not fit this story. Discovered in China’s Shaanxi Province in 1978, it is remarkably complete, preserving both the face and the brain case. A study published in April concluded the skull is about 260,000 years old.
When researchers first described the Dali skull in 1979, they assumed it belonged to Homo erectus. This hominin species arrived in South-East Asia 1.8 million years ago and probably disappeared from the region by about 140,000 years ago. That fits with the standard story.
But by 1981, Xinzhi Wu at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing had noticed that the Dali skull’s face had many features in common with our species, Homo sapiens.
So certain characteristics that we associate with modern Homo sapiens may have actually developed in east Asia, and were only later carried to Africa. We’ll still need further comparisons between the Dali skull and the Moroccan ones. But the implications are enormous; we’re talking about rewriting the origins of our species as we know it, reassessing how our ancestors migrated and interacted and subsequently evolved.
“In a real sense we are talking about a multiregional population, connected recurrently by migration and genetic exchanges,” John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.