The earliest humans to leave Africa, in China

Since discovery in 2010 that remains of the genus Homo at Dmanisi in Georgia were about 1.85 Ma old several more instances of bones and stone tools a few hundred thousand years less than that age have turned up in China. All have been ascribed to H. erectus, although there are dissimilarities with African examples of the species and its predecessor H. ergaster. The technological breakthrough that led H. erectus/ergaster to knap the distinctive bifacial or Acheulean ‘handaxe’ was achieved at about the same time as the Dmanisi humans left Africa, yet there is no sign of such tools in eastern Asia until much later, most ancient artefacts there being of a more primitive, ‘Oldowan’ type. That is perhaps because more serviceable tools were fashioned from less durable materials than fine-grained rock that takes an edge. Maybe the skills were lost en route or the forebears of eastern Asian tool makers left Africa before the breakthrough. At any rate, the genus Homo is generally conferred on any being that had a tool-making culture, so that the presence of tools alone in a sedimentary deposit signifies that humans probably once inhabited that site. The earliest tools (3.3 Ma) from the Turkana area of Kenya were made half a million years before the first known appearance of well-documented remains of an un-named member of the genus Homo at  Ledi-Geraru in Afar, Ethiopia (2.8 Ma). At sites in Olduvai, Tanzania (1.9 Ma) and Turkana, Kenya (2.1 Ma) fossils of Homo habilis are found in association with ‘Oldovan’ stone tools.

Sites where early human fossils an tools have been found. (Credit: John Kappelman, Nature 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05293-9)

The latest development in the origin and wanderings of early humans has emerged from studies of a thick deposit of windblown silt or loess that makes up the Loess Plateau (Latitude 34°N) between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in central-east China. The loess is divided into several sequences by thin soil horizons (palaeosols). The entire stratigraphy contains tiny grains of iron minerals whose magnetic polarity was aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field at the time of deposition. This allows periods of normal and reversed geomagnetic polarity to be detected with considerable precision. Measurements have been taken at 10 cm intervals throughout the loess, to give an unbroken record of events throughout the Pleistocene Epoch that can be matched to a dated reference called the geomagnetic polarity timescale (GPTS). Palaeoclimate researchers have been able to show that the layers of loess correspond to successive glacial stages, whereas the palaeosol represent warm interglacials, exactly as recorded in sea-floor sediment profiles   A team of archaeologists from China and Britain have found primitive, Oldowan-type, artefacts in both the loess and palaeosol horizons at 17 different levels (Zhu, Z. and 10 others 2018. Hominin occupation of the Chinese Loess Plateau since about 2.1 million years ago. Nature, v. 559 advance publication online doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0299-4. See also). The artefacts are positioned at levels dated at between 1.26 to 2.12 Ma by the palaeomagnetic dating (from the Réunion to Cobb Mountain normally polarized subchrons).

Primitive stone tool (four sides shown) from the Loess Plateau of China. (Credit: Zhu et al./Nature 2018)

So, in both cool and warm conditions (34°N has cold winters today) toolmakers were regularly present in central, east China for almost 900 ka. The earliest must have made a 14 thousand km trek from tropical Africa across several climatic zones, and been physically, cognitively and technologically capable of surviving and reproducing for the one- to three-thousand years the journey must have taken (based on a dispersal rate of 5 to 15 km a year estimated from modern hunter-gatherers’ activities). Either there were repeated migrations of this scale or a pioneer population survived on or within reach of the loess steppe for hundreds of thousand years. The earliest emigrants would have been neither Homo erectus nor ergaster, for neither had evolved. Their age suggests that they may have been H. habilis, a view that has been expressed for the ancestors of the diminutive H. floresiensis known to have been present of the Indonesian island of Flores for around 700 ka. Until actual fossils are unearthed – not easy as the sequence is exposed in very steep slopes characteristic of dissected loess terrains – who the first occupants of China were remains mysterious. But one thing stands out: If early humans from that long ago could arrive, survive and prosper half a world away from their place of origin, then paleoanthropologists must consider the possibility of continual diffusion of the genus Homo away from its African origins once equipped with the ability to make tools. China may become the focus for early-human research as it became for that into the origins of birds and feathered dinosaurs.

You can read more about early humans and their evolution here.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

One response to “The earliest humans to leave Africa, in China

  1. It is always dangerous to say “the earliest”, rather than “the earliest known”

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