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Discovered in Fuyan Cave, Daoxian, China, this is the definitive earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens living far away from Africa. These fossils are about 80,000-120,000 years old, and they are bound to significantly change how we understand our history. While there have also been incredibly old human fossils found in Qafzeh and Skhul in Israel, they have primitive characteristics, unlike the teeth found in China.
Simply put, this is the very first evidence of a modern Homo sapiens not located in Africa. By "modern", we mean to say that it has the same form and structure as the humans of the present age; thus, this possibly 120,000-year-old human from China has the same physical structure as you and me.
Elaborately described in the latest issue of the Nature journal, these 80,000-120,000-year-old teeth are a surprising find, as it is rare to unearth well-preserved fossils outside Africa that are older than just about 45,000 years ago. Likewise, while primates originated from Asia, it has long been accepted that humans came first from Africa. But now, the idea that the very first Homo sapiens migrated out of Asia instead of out of Africa has been gaining ground.
Daoxian County was 2,000 kilometers away from Beijing, but the trip was definitely worth it. There were about 300 square meters of excavation, and the fossil teeth were contained in a calcite floor, preventing any soil or younger fossil to grow below. Nearby was a relatively small stalagmite, estimated by both US and Chinese scientists to be about 80,000 years old; since the stalagmite was created after the fossils had been contained by the calcite floor, it only meant that everything below it was immediately older.
In addition, remains of mammals such as elephants, hyenas, and pandas which were mixed with the human fossils helped the researchers infer that the teeth could be as old as 120,000 years.
While the discovery in China does not automatically mean that the earliest humans with modern morphology originated from there, it has certainly proved that our species was already in the southern region of China 70,000 years before we reached Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.
The discovery in China also dictates that during the Pleistocene Era, China had several groups of humans, including our species. One other group, the Denisovans, is another primitive group whose fossil records indicate they lived in the northern part of Asia. Another group are the Neanderthals who also existed outside of Africa during the same period. Some scientists believe that their existence prevented our species from reaching Europe earlier. Interestingly, as the Homo Sapiens reach their territory, the Neanderthals went extinct -- or rather, they became part of the Homo Sapiens.
María Martinón-Torres, co-author of the study in the journal Nature, wondered why Homo Sapiens were already in China about 80,000-120,000 years ago, yet didn't get to Europe except until 45,000 years ago. One possible reason was that the Neanderthals were difficult to overcome. However, the Neanderthals then were already outnumbered due to the harsher environment and fewer resources they lived in, so there is still no concrete answer. What this finding provides, however, is a deeper appreciation of our history -- of surviving the harsh environments and being able to understand why the other species (especially the Neanderthals) died out, and why we were the only human species that survived.