Oldest Bones from Modern Humans Discovered
2012-08-23 0:00

By Charles Choi | LiveScience.com

Newfound pieces of human skull from "the Cave of the Monkeys" in Laos are the earliest skeletal evidence yet that humans once had an ancient, rapid migration to Asia.

Anatomically modern humans first arose about 200,000 years ago in Africa. When and how our lineage then dispersed out of Africa has long proven controversial.

Archaeological evidence and genetic data suggest that modern humans rapidly migrated out of Africa and into Southeast Asia by at least 60,000 years ago. However, complicating this notion is the notable absence of fossil evidence for modern human occupation in mainland Southeast Asia, likely because those bones do not survive well in the warm, tropical region.

A reconstruction of the human skull discovered in Tam Pa Ling.

Now a partial skull from Tam Pa Ling, "the Cave of the Monkeys" in northern Laos helps fill in this mysterious gap in the fossil record.

"Most surprising is the fact that we found anything at all," researcher Laura Lynn Shackelford, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Illinois, told LiveScience. "Most people didn’t think we’d find anything in these caves, or even in the region where we’re working in mainland Southeast Asia. But we’re stubborn, gone where no one’s really looked before, or at least in almost a century."


Oldest bones of modern humans

No artifacts were found at the site, nor were signs of human occupation.

"We think this fossil was outside with other fauna and flora, and during the rainy season, rain washed it into the cave," Shackelford said. "In subsequent seasons, more sediment washed into the cave and covered it."

The shape of the bone and teeth is distinctly anatomically modern human, not like those of an extinct lineage such as the Neanderthals. A variety of dating techniques of the sediments surrounding the fossils suggests they are at least 46,000 to 51,000 years old, and direct dating of the bone suggests a maximum age of about 63,000 years. This makes these fossils the earliest skeletal evidence for anatomically modern humans east of the Middle East.

These findings "change the thinking regarding modern human migration routes into Asia, that there were more routes of dispersal than previously thought," Shackelford said.

Read the full article at: livescience.com

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