Did Fishermen Find Evidence of an Unknown Group of Primitive Humans?

A fossilized jawbone pulled from the seafloor near Taiwan may be from an ancient type of hominin new to science

Homo sapien skull
Early Homo sapiens, a skull of which is shown here, may have coexisted with the primitive human whose jawbone was recently discovered by a fisherman off the coast of Taiwan DK Limited/CORBIS

It isn’t everyday that a fisherman’s catch has the potential to alter what we know about extinct species of early humans.

LiveScience reports that a fossilized jawbone discovered in a fishing net off the western coast of Taiwan may belong to a previously unknown form of archaic human that once dwelled in Asia. The lower right mandible, complete with a short row of thick teeth, is thought to be from a hominin that lived between 10,000 and 190,000 years ago.

Scientists who recently published a study of the fossil, dubbed Penghu 1, noted a resemblance to a 400,000-year-old specimen discovered some 600 miles from where the jawbone was found. This led them to wonder if the two fossils may represent an unclassified human species.

They’re cautious, though, saying that more research is required. Final word is sure to take a while since conclusive evidence can’t be established until other related skeletal parts are discovered.

However, the find does strongly suggest, as LiveScience notes, “that multiple lineages of extinct humans may have coexisted in Asia before the arrival of modern humans."

As homo sapiens, we’re the sole surviving hominins, a species group that includes extinct human relatives like Neanderthals and Homo erectus. As we rose to dominance, our fellow hominin ancestors progressively died out, though multiple species from our genus are believed to have existed at the same time in some of the same places.

Penghu 1 provides a better picture of what our direct ancestors may have confronted when they first arrived in Asia 50,000 to 40,000 years ago. They likely “came across a diverse group of hominins,” Yousuke Kaifu, the study’s co-author and a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, explained to LiveScience. "This is a very different, complex and exciting story compared to what I was taught in school."

The fossil was discovered in the Penghu Channel, which was part of the China mainland during the last ice age. The anonymous fisherman then sold it to an antique shop, and it was eventually obtained by Taiwan’s National Museum of Natural Sciences. No word on what kind of payout a prehistoric fossil got him, but it is likely to be the most valuable catch of his career—at least anthropologically.

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