The remains of one of the earliest modern humans
to inhabit eastern Asia were unearthed in a cave in China in 2006.
It was hoped that the find would shed light on how
our ancestors colonised the East, a movement that is only poorly
understood by anthropologists. Researchers found 34 bone fragments
belonging to a single individual at the Tianyuan Cave, near Beijing.
Details of the discovery appeared in Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences journal, with co-author Professor
Erik Trinkaus, from Washington University in St Louis, USA reporting
on them. Radiocarbon dates, obtained directly from the bones, showed
that the person concerned lived between 42,000 and 39,000 years ago.
For this time period, which is critical for understanding
the spread of modern humans around the world, there now existed two
well-dated human fossils from eastern Asia. The first of these were
the remains from the Niah Cave at Sarawak on Borneo, and now there
was this specimen from China. Heading west, the next specimens at
the time were attributed to Lebanon. There was nothing in-between.
According to the 'Out of Africa' theory, modern
humans (Homo sapiens) evolved in East Africa and then spread
out across the globe about 70,000 years ago, replacing earlier, or
archaic, human populations, such as Neanderthals in the west or
Homo erectus in the east, with very little, if any,
The Tianyuan remains displayed diagnostic features
of modern H sapiens. But co-author Erik Trinkaus and his
colleagues argued, controversially, that the bones also displayed
features which are characteristic of earlier human species, such as
relatively large front teeth. The most likely explanation, they argued,
is interbreeding between early modern humans emerging from Africa and
the archaic populations they encountered in Europe and Asia.
For a long time until the first decade of the twenty-first
century, experts refuted the theory that modern humans had
interbred with their cousins (such as Homo erectus in
Asia, shown here), but evidence continued to mount in support of
the theory, and DNA testing has proven that eastern populations
were even more prone to it than were western ones