Ancient teeth found in China could rewrite human history. The teeth, dated as at least 80,000 years old, are from people who were thought to walk Europe first, not Asia, according to CNN.
The ancient teeth offer a problem because most researchers believe humans only left Africa for the first time around 60,000 years ago. The remains found in China could eventually rewrite history books.
“This is stunning, it’s major league,” Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the research, said in a statement. “It’s one of the most important finds coming out of Asia in the last decade.”
The ancient teeth in China, described in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, were found in a cave in country’s Hunan province, and bear a close resemblance to those seen in modern humans. The researchers believe they’re undoubtedly those of Homo sapiens, which would only mean that early human migration took place out of Africa.
The researchers believe this may be a sign that humans were ready to leave the nest long before they trekked into Europe. It’s possible that Neanderthals, who were in Europe at the time the owners of these ancient teeth were in China, were in the way of a westward migration.
“The coincidence between the arrival of H. sapiens to Europe and the Neanderthal extinction has often been interpreted as evidence of the superiority of modern humans,” co-author Maria Martinon-Torres of the National Center on Human Evolution in Spain said. “However, we now wonder that if modern humans were already present in southern China more than 80,000 years ago, why were they not capable of entering Europe until 45,000 ago? Maybe because Neanderthals were there, it was not easy to take over ‘their’ land.”
Indeed, recent research on Neanderthals has suggested that they were much more formidable opponents than we once gave them credit for. Even their teeth and other evidence indicates that they were intelligent enough to make art and jewelry, and may have culturally been quite similar to humans living at the same time.
There probably wouldn’t have been room for the both of us. In a commentary article for Nature, the University of Exeter’s Robin Dennell (who wasn’t involved in the study) suggests that the warmer climate in China might have made it a more attractive destination for early settlers.
— Nature News&Comment (@NatureNews) October 15, 2021
Paleoanthropologists have looked to caves in southern China for clues to fill in the story about the teeth. These caves are full of fossils, but it has been difficult to pin down the ages of the specimens gathered, or even to tell which hominin species the fossils belong to.
The newly discovered teeth from Fuyan Cave are different. The limestone cave, in Hunan province, has an ideal mix of features that allowed scientists to pin down the ancient fossils’ age.
In an acidic environment like Fuyan Cave, teeth are often the best-preserved human remains. Enamel, which covers a tooth’s outer surface, is the hardest tissue in the human body; dentin, which makes up most of the tooth, has a little more give but is still harder than bone.
For such ancient fossils, understanding how deeply they were buried is vital, because each layer of rock represents a different epoch in time. The deeper the objects were found, the older they are. If those layers are scrambled in any way, it becomes very difficult for excavators to tell the true age of those fossils.
Luckily, in Fuyan Cave, water had deposited a layer of calcite flowstone over the sandy clay that held the human teeth, sealing them in and preventing them from being disturbed. Over the flowstone grew a mound of mineral deposits called a stalagmite. Radiometric dating revealed those minerals were around 80,100 years old — which means all the material below it, teeth included, must be older.
Beneath the flowstone, the scientists also found mammalian fossils from 38 species, including Stegodon orientalis (a relative of mammoths and elephants) and Ailuropoda baconi (an ancestor of the giant panda). These extinct large mammals lived during a period known as the Upper Pleistocene, about 125,000 to 10,000 years ago.
Together, the stalagmite formations and the fossils allowed researchers to bracket the ages of the human teeth — their owners must have lived sometime between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago.
These teeth, which included canine teeth and molars, look remarkably like those belonging to contemporary humans, not the larger, lumpier teeth of earlier hominin species, such as Homo erectus. This confirmed for the researchers that the teeth must have come from Homo sapiens that arose in Africa, rather than from a different hominin lineage.
To better understand how these humans arrived and what they were doing there, the researchers will have to confirm their dating, which other researchers have suggested is compelling but not definitive.
And we’ll have to find more remains: While these ancient teeth are a great start, they were found without any other signs of human life. There are no tools to indicate a settlement had been made in the cave. In all likelihood, the researchers say, these remains were simply dragged into the cave by predators that lived there.
In any case, it’s unlikely that the ancient teeth in China came from ancestors of modern Asians, as DNA testing suggests that those groups stem from humans who came to Asia by way of Europe, picking up some Neanderthal DNA along the way. This discovery does indeed challenge the human migration timeline and could rewrite history textbooks.