Letter

The earliest unequivocally modern humans in southern China

  • Nature volume 526, pages 696699 (29 October 2015)
  • doi:10.1038/nature15696
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Abstract

The hominin record from southern Asia for the early Late Pleistocene epoch is scarce. Well-dated and well-preserved fossils older than 45,000 years that can be unequivocally attributed to Homo sapiens are lacking1,2,3,4. Here we present evidence from the newly excavated Fuyan Cave in Daoxian (southern China). This site has provided 47 human teeth dated to more than 80,000 years old, and with an inferred maximum age of 120,000 years. The morphological and metric assessment of this sample supports its unequivocal assignment to H. sapiens. The Daoxian sample is more derived than any other anatomically modern humans, resembling middle-to-late Late Pleistocene specimens and even contemporary humans. Our study shows that fully modern morphologies were present in southern China 30,000–70,000 years earlier than in the Levant and Europe5,6,7. Our data fill a chronological and geographical gap that is relevant for understanding when H. sapiens first appeared in southern Asia. The Daoxian teeth also support the hypothesis that during the same period, southern China was inhabited by more derived populations than central and northern China. This evidence is important for the study of dispersal routes of modern humans. Finally, our results are relevant to exploring the reasons for the relatively late entry of H. sapiens into Europe. Some studies have investigated how the competition with H. sapiens may have caused Neanderthals’ extinction (see ref. 8 and references therein). Notably, although fully modern humans were already present in southern China at least as early as 80,000 years ago, there is no evidence that they entered Europe before 45,000 years ago. This could indicate that H. neanderthalensis was indeed an additional ecological barrier for modern humans, who could only enter Europe when the demise of Neanderthals had already started.

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Acknowledgements

This work has been supported by the grants from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (KZZD-EW-03, XDA05130101, GJHZ201314), National Natural Science Foundation of China (41272034, 41302016, 41271229), Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-ALW 823.01.003), Dirección General de Investigación of the Spanish Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia (CGL2012-38434-C03-02, and Acción Integrada España Francia HF2007-0115), Consejería de Educación de Junta de Castilla y León (CEN074A12-2) and The Leakey Foundation (through the support of G. Getty and D. Crook). We are grateful to several people who have provided access to comparative materials and/or advice in several aspects of the manuscript: R. Blasco, J. Rosell, J. M. Parés, M. Salesa, A. Tarriño, C. Saiz, I. Hershkovitz, A. Vialet, M. A. de Lumley, C. Bernís, J. Rascón and J. Svoboda. We are also grateful to Y.-S. Lou, L.-M. Zhang and P.-P. Wei who participated in the excavations at the Daoxian site.

Author information

Author notes

    • Wu Liu
    • , María Martinón-Torres
    •  & Xiu-jie Wu

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100044, China

    • Wu Liu
    • , Song Xing
    • , Hao-wen Tong
    • , Shu-wen Pei
    •  & Xiu-jie Wu
  2. UCL Anthropology, 14 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW, UK

    • María Martinón-Torres
    •  & José María Bermúdez de Castro
  3. Departamento de Ciencias Históricas y Geografía. University of Burgos. Hospital del Rey, s/n. 09001 Burgos, Spain

    • María Martinón-Torres
  4. Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), Paseo Sierra de Atapuerca 3, 09002 Burgos, Spain

    • María Martinón-Torres
    • , Mark Jan Sier
    •  & José María Bermúdez de Castro
  5. State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xian 710075, China

    • Yan-jun Cai
  6. Paleomagnetic Laboratory ‘Fort Hoofddijk’, Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, Budapestlaan 17, 3584 CD Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Mark Jan Sier
  7. Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, PO Box 9515, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands

    • Mark Jan Sier
  8. School of Archaeology and Museology, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Xiao-hong Wu
  9. Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455, USA

    • R. Lawrence Edwards
  10. Institute of Global Environmental Change, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an 710049, China

    • Hai Cheng
  11. Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Hunan Province, Changsha 410008, China

    • Yi-yuan Li
  12. Cultural Relics Administration of Daoxian County, Daoxian 425300, China

    • Xiong-xin Yang

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Contributions

X.-J.W., W.L. and M.M.-T. are the corresponding authors and have contributed equally to this work. X.-J.W. and W.L. are directing the Daoxian research project. W.L., M.M.-T., S.X., X.-J.W. and J.M.B.d.C. performed the anthropological study of the Daoxian human teeth. Y.-J.C. and S.-W.P. conducted the geological studies of the Daoxian site. Y.-J.C., R.L.E. and H.C. conducted the U–Th dating of the speleothem and stalagmite samples collected from the cave. M.J.S. conducted the palaeomagnetic analysis. X.-H.W. conducted the radiocarbon dating. H.-W.T. conducted the study of the faunal remains. X.-J.W., X.-X.Y., Y.-Y.L., W.L., Y.-J.C., H.-W.T. and S.-W.P. participated in the field research.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Wu Liu or María Martinón-Torres or Xiu-jie Wu.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Information sections A-H and Supplementary References.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains a virtual tour through the Daoxian cave to complement the stratigraphic explanations.

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