A re-analysis of the Dali skull is helping rewrite the story of human origins.

Rewriting Our Origins: Skull Found in China Promotes a Wider Perspective on Human Evolution


Most people discussing the origins of our species suggest that Homo sapiens can be traced back to Africa about 200,000 years ago. However, an increasing amount of evidence suggests that there may be a flaw in accepting this general belief. Recent analysis of a 260,000 skull from China is helping rewrite the story.

Before now, the oldest accepted dating for Homo sapiens remains were said to be from the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, dated to 195,000 years ago and Herto, also in Ethiopia, from 160,000 years ago. But new research is showing that things are more complicated. In fact, it seems that there was more mixing between diverse hominin populations than has been generally accepted and human ancestors were living in Eurasia as far back as 200,000 years ago.

Herto skull.

Herto skull. (Public Domain)

When the ‘Dali skull’ was found in the Shaanxi province of China in 1978 researchers believed it was a mostly intact skull of a Homo erectus. Yet a publication in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology reports that a more recent examination of the skull suggests it is an example of Pleistocene Homo sapiens in what is now China. Xinzhi Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing has noted that these physical similarities show Homo erectus most likely shared DNA with Homo sapiens.

Study co-author Sheela Athreya of Texas A&M University, told MailOnline:

“This was surprising because we expected Dali to exhibit similarities only to other Chinese specimens, particularly the ones that came before it (Homo erectus) and after it (Homo sapiens). But it ended up being more similar to these fossils from North Africa and the Levant, all of which are classified as early Homo sapiens.”

The Dali skull has similarities with Homo sapiens.

The Dali skull has similarities with Homo sapiens. (New Scientist/Sheela Athreya)

Specifically, the authors of the current paper write the Dali skull:

“appears to represent a population that played a more central role in the origin of Chinese H. sapiens. […] we propose that Pleistocene populations in China were shaped by periods of isolated evolutionary change within local lineages at certain times, and gene flow between local lineages or between Eastern and Western Eurasia, and Africa at other times, resulting in contributions being made in different capacities to different regions at different times.”

The initial assumption the skull pertained to a Homo erectus individual was largely due to the extreme date of the remains. However, the recent publication of other human remains dating from 300,000 to 350,000 years ago in Morocco may have incited researchers to take another look at the Dali skull. As Newsweek reports, the idea that the Dali skull may have more in common with Homo sapiens than Homo erectus has been floating around for decades, but has been continually dismissed as improbable by mainstream scholars.

A reconstruction of a Homo erectus, exhibit at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany.

A reconstruction of a Homo erectus, exhibit at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany. (CC BY SA 2.5)

Yet the new analysis of the Dali skull and the recent study of similar Moroccan Homo sapiens remains support each other in promoting the need for a wider perspective on human origins than just the mainstream view. As Sheela Athreya of Texas A&M University told New Scientist, “I think gene flow could have been multidirectional, so some of the traits seen in Europe or Africa could have originated in Asia.”

The study of early human remains and artifacts from Morocco was also a re-evaluation of the artifacts. As Ancient Origins has previously reported, that discovery suggests we may need to re-think the general search in the area around the Great Rift Valley of East Africa for the origin of our species. The Dali skull further widens the search zone.

Some of the discoveries at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco: Left, view showing a partial skull in the center foreground (white arrow) and a femur in the center background (yellow arrow). Right, view of site, but after additional excavation. The partial skull (white arrow) and femur (yellow arrow) are still present, as well as a portion of a right tooth row (red arrow).

Some of the discoveries at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco: Left, view showing a partial skull in the center foreground (white arrow) and a femur in the center background (yellow arrow). Right, view of site, but after additional excavation. The partial skull (white arrow) and femur (yellow arrow) are still present, as well as a portion of a right tooth row (red arrow). ( Richter, D. et al )

These are exciting times for the study of human evolution as new techniques of analysis are opening the doors to alternative hypotheses on our origins, providing more details on hominin interactions, and exploring possible migration routes of our earliest ancestors.

Top Image: A re-analysis of the Dali skull is helping rewrite the story of human origins. Source: Sheela Athreya

By Alicia McDermott

Comments

It's clear that the skull in the photographs, except the Herto skull, is not from Homo sapiens.

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