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Did Homo sapiens colonize Asia before Europe?

The discovery is forcing scientists to ask lots of new questions about the earliest Homo sapiens.

By Brooks Hays
These 47 teeth, found in a limestone cave in Southern China, represent the earliest of fossil evidence of modern humans outside of Africa. Scientists date the teeth between 80,000 and 120,000 years old. Photo by Nature
These 47 teeth, found in a limestone cave in Southern China, represent the earliest of fossil evidence of modern humans outside of Africa. Scientists date the teeth between 80,000 and 120,000 years old. Photo by Nature

DAOXIAN, China, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- A cave in Southern China, near the small village of Daoxian, has yielded 47 human teeth, dated between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago -- the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens presence outside of Africa.

Researchers don't think modern humans left Africa for Europe until roughly 60,000 years ago. If they're right, the new evidence suggests Homo sapiens left for Asia first.

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"This is stunning, it's major league," Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford who participated in the research, told Nature. "It's one of the most important finds coming out of Asia in the last decade."

The newly discovered teeth -- described this week in the journal Nature -- have even moved some scientists to float the possibility of an "out of Asia" origin story. Primates, after all, originated in Asia.

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The teeth don't necessarily lend credence to such a narrative, but they do prove modern humans were in Asia 70,000 years before Europe and the Mediterranean.

"They are indeed the earliest Homo sapiens with fully modern morphologies outside of Africa," lead study author Wu Liu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Discovery News. "At the Levant (much of the eastern Mediterranean), we also have human remains from the sites of Qafzeh and Skhul (in Israel) with similar ages, but these fossils have been described as retaining some primitive features and, thus, are not fully modern."

The discovery is forcing scientists to ask lots of new questions.

Could some of modern humanity have descended from this early expedition? And why were Africans compelled eastward so long before they settled to the north and west?

More research is needed to answer the first question, but researchers say it makes sense that the first modern humans first went east. Born of the tropics roughly 160,000 years ago, Homo sapiens were likely deterred by colder temperatures in their earliest movements.

Researchers say they were likely also deterred by the presence of Neanderthals.

"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," said study co-author Maria Martinon-Torres, a researcher with the National Center on Human Evolution, in Spain. "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?"

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"Maybe because Neanderthals were there, it was not easy to take over 'their' land," she added.

"It's possible that the demise of Neanderthals had nothing to do with human superiority," Martinon-Torres wrote in an op-ed for The Conversation. "Maybe after hundreds of thousands of years isolated and punished by merciless winters, Neanderthals started to fade. It may be that was only then when H. sapiens saw the opportunity to take over their empire for hundreds of thousands years."

Though uncertainties abound, scientists believe more discoveries (and the possibilities for answers) lie ahead. The limestone cave where the teeth were found is just one of many scattered throughout Southern China.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Petraglia said. "There's a lot more work that needs to be done."

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