A trove of fossilized human teeth found in a cave in southern China indicates that our ancestors traveled to Asia long before modern people ever set foot in Europe. The evidence for this incredible discovery: 47 fossilized human teeth.
These teeth, found in the Fuyan Cave site in Hunan Province's Daoxian County, date to a time between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago. This is tens of thousands of years older than the oldest human remains previously found in Europe and the Mediterranean. This handful of teeth could be the earliest evidence of modern humans from outside of Africa.
"Until now, the majority of the scientific community thought that Homo sapiens [were] not present in Asia before 50,000 years ago," paleoanthropologist Wu Liu tells Will Dunham for Reuters.
This find could upend popular theories of human migration out of Africa. Until now, most scientists believed that homo sapiens got a fast foothold in Europe by wiping out the local Neanderthals, but now it appears that they didn’t go as easily as it seemed. It’s possible that our ancestors had to wait a few millennia for their Neanderthal relatives to start thinning out before they could grab the territory, Amina Khan writes for the L.A. Times.
There are a few other reasons why these early ancestors might have decided to travel eastward to southern China before heading north, namely it was a lot warmer. While Neanderthals were hardier and better-suited to the harsh climate in Europe and northern China, homo sapiens likely found the warmer weather in southern China more to their liking, paleoanthropologist María Martinón-Torres tells Dunham. But what’s unclear is whether these early explorers thrived, or if this migration was a fluke.
"We really have to understand the fate of this migration. We need to find out whether it failed and they went extinct or they really did contribute to later people,” Martinón-Torres tells Paul Rincon for the BBC.
Paleoanthropologists had found our ancestors fossils dating back to about the same time period in the Es Skhul and Qafzeh Caves in Israel, but most believed the remains were from a failed migration that died out. However, the teeth found in the Fuyan Cave site are more similar to modern human teeth than those found in Israel, Professor Chris Stringer of the London Natural History Museum tells Rincon. That means either the humans who traveled to southern China either rapidly evolved their teeth to a more modern shape, or they belonged to an undiscovered group of more modern-looking humans.
However they got there, these fossils open up new questions about how and when humans spread across the planet.