The textbook narrative of human migration has long told us that we first left Africa around 1.85 million years ago. Artefacts and skeletal remains newly discovered in China, however, have now been dated to ca. 2.12 million years ago – repainting the history of how humans spread across the planet.
Chinese and British researchers believe the tools were made by another member of the homo evolutionary group, rather than homo sapiens, as far back as 2.1 million years ago.
Found by Professor Zhaoyu Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Professor Robin Dennell of Exeter University and an extensive team of researchers, the artefacts show that our earliest human ancestors colonised East Asia over two million years ago.
Professor Zhaoyu Zhu said the team was “very excited” about the findings.
“One of my colleagues suddenly noticed a stone embedded in a steep outcrop. After a short while, more artefacts were found – one after another.” All in all, 96 artefacts were discovered.
Prior to this discovery, the earliest evidence of humanity outside Africa was a collection of skeletal remains and stone tools found in Dmanisi, Georgia, which have been dated to 1.85 million years ago – 270,000 years after the new discovery in Shangchen in the southern Chinese Loess Plateau.
The research, published in the journal Nature, also suggests that the ancient humans returned to the same site repeatedly, possibly for hunting.
The collection includes a notch, scrapers, cobble, hammer stones and pointed pieces. Each item shows sign of human use. The hammer stones, for instance, had been intentionally flaked. Fragments of animal bones that would have been contemporaneous with the items were also found.
Most of the artefacts were made of quartzite and quartz, suggesting that the materials were sourced from the foothills and streams of the Qinling Mountains around 5 to 10 kilometres from the site.
Because the 96 stone artefacts were found in 17 different layers of fossil soils that had developed over a period of one million years, we now know that early humans occupied the Chinese Loess Plateau under varying climatic conditions between 1.2 and 2.12 million years ago.
Professor Dennell says: “Our discovery means it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa.”
The find “may add a new chapter to the story of hominin evolution, suggesting that some of these species left Africa far earlier than once believed and managed to travel over 8,000 miles east of their evolutionary birthplace,” The New York Times reports. The age of the tools “suggests that the hominins who made them were neither tall nor big-brained. Instead, they may have been small bipedal apes, with brains about the size of a chimpanzee’s.”
Michael Petraglia, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History comment:S “The implications of all this are large. We must re-evaluate our understanding of human prehistory in Eurasia.”