In 2009, paleoanthropologists working in a cave in Laos discovered the skull bones and teeth of a modern human. The bones date from between 46,000 and 63,000 years ago and are possibly the earliest fossil evidence of Homo sapiens in mainland Southeast Asia, researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week.
The fossils – a partial skull, jaw fragments and teeth – were found in Tam Pa Ling (Monkey Cave). Several physical features suggest the person was human, including the lack of brows, an enlargement of the skull behind the eyes, and smaller teeth compared to previous hominids. The third molar was just emerging, suggesting that the person is a young adult.
No artifacts were found on the bones that appeared to have washed into the cave. Radiocarbon and luminescent dating (a measure of the last time something was heated or exposed to sunlight) from charcoal and sediment just above and below the fossils indicate that the bones were deposited in the cave 46,000 to 51,000 years ago, which a minimum age of bones. The dating of a piece of the skull with uranium dating shows that the fossils are no older than 63,000 years. (The University of Illinois has several pictures of the fossils and caves.)
The discovery is important because scientists haven’t found too many human fossils in East Asia that are between 120,000 and 40,000 years old, although genetic evidence and stone tools suggest humans must have been in the area. “There are other modern human fossils in China or in the Southeast Asian islands that are roughly the same age, but they are either not well dated or do not show definitely modern human features,” team leader Laura Shackelford of the University of Illinois at Das shared with Urbana- Champaign in a press release with. “This skull is very well dated and shows very consistent modern human features.”
Other early modern human fossils in East Asia include skull fragments found at the Xujiayao site in northeast China in 1976. Based on the age of the rhinoceros teeth found in the same location, the bones have been dated to 104,000 to 125,000 years, but some researchers have questioned whether the human fossils were really found in the same geological layer as the rhinoceros remains. There is also a partial mandible from Zhirendong in southern China that was clearly dated to around 100,000 years ago, but some experts doubt that it really came from a modern human. In 2010 I reported the discovery of a 67,000 year old toe bone found in the Philippines. The fossil belongs to the genus Homo, but a single foot bone is not enough to determine the exact species.
Finding the physical remains of modern humans is important in clearing up the history of human migration to this part of the world, especially now that we know that other hominids lived in East Asia at the end of the Pleistocene. The tiny hobbit lived in Flores 17,000 years ago. And last year scientists learned that the Denisova people, a species of hominid known only from DNA from finger bones and teeth, must have lived in Asia at the same time as modern humans: genetic evidence from modern day Southeast Asians, Australian Aborigines, and Melanesians suggests to other people in Oceania that people and Denisova people are mixed up.
But hominid fossils are difficult to find in Southeast Asia. The warm, humid environment inhibits fossil conservation, which likely explains why so many fossils were found in the area in cooler, drier caves. Let’s hope this latest discovery inspires other anthropologists to search for more fossils to fill the East Asian void in early modern human history.
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