It’s always wise to be cautious when an archeologist claims a discovery “will change everything,” especially if the statement ends in an exclamation point. So let’s tread carefully through this new announcement that a hominin skull found in China may be proof that a separate branch of Homo sapiens sprouted in Asia with no connection to the known startup in Africa. Not only that, this skull is older than all known Homo sapiens fossils. That would change … hold that thought.
The cranium in question is known as the Dali skull or Dali Man skull (photos here) which was discovered in 1978 in Dali County, Shaanxi Province. After initial analysis, it was believed to be a skull from a Homo erectus, the extinct hominin species that lived from 1.9 million to 143,000 years ago (possibly even 100,000 years ago) in Asia, Africa and Europe. However, renowned Chinese paleontologist Xinzhi Wu was not convinced. He saw too many similarities between Dali Man and modern man to support that conclusion. That would contradict the “Out of Africa” human origin story that virtually all other researchers supported.
Recently, Xinzhi Wu was able to team up with Sheela Athreya, an associate professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, to do an updated analysis of Dali Man’s skull using the latest technology and new research data. Get your exclamation point ready.
“When just the facial skeleton is considered, Dali aligns with Middle Paleolithic H. sapiens and is clearly more derived than African or Eurasian Middle Pleistocene Homo. When just the neurocranium is considered, Dali is most similar to African and Eastern Eurasian but not Western European Middle Pleistocene Homo. When both sets of variables are considered together, Dali exhibits a unique morphology that is most closely aligned with the earliest H. sapiens from North Africa and the Levant.”
In their report in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Wu and Athreya state that the Chinese skull is almost certainly Homo sapiens. Not only that, it appears to be 260,000 years old, predating the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils found in Morocco by 60,000 years.
How would this change everything? For starters, it may mean that Dali Man was not a transitional species between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens but a member of the latter group. It means that two distinct line of Homo sapiens may have developed independently in Asia and Africa, and that the Asian line is probably older. It means the two groups eventually intermingled (the least-surprising conclusion, based on how much we now know about sex between humans and Neanderthals). Most radically, it may mean humans are actually “Out of Asia.”
Is that everything?