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300,000-year-old fossils of as many as 16 individual human ancestors have been found in a collapsed cave in China. Here is a reconstruction of a skull found at the site. Source: Wu Xiujie and Erik Trinkaus

Pleistocene Skull and 300,000 Years of Evolution Secrets Found in a Chinese Cave

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In China, paleontologists have announced a very important discovery of human fossils and artifacts.  They have uncovered a large number of fossils of early relatives of modern humans in a cave. The remains are up to an amazing 300,000 years old. They have also found artifacts made by the hominids. This is allowing experts to have an unprecedented insight into human evolution and development in East Asia.

The fossils were unearthed by a team of leading Chinese experts during 15 years of excavations of a collapsed cave known as Hualongdong. The site is located in  Dongzhi County, which is in Anhui Province. This cave was found when some researchers stumbled upon some fossils of an early mammal in 2004. A huge boulder at the entrance made excavation difficult but it may also have preserved the site over the millennia.

Features of the excavation site. (Cai Yanjun, Yu Shuwen)

Features of the excavation site. ( Cai Yanjun, Yu Shuwen )

Finding the Fossils and Pleistocene Skull

ChinaPlus quotes Wu Xiujie,  a member of the archaeological team, as saying, “in the cave, we not only have discovered a large number of ancient human fossils, but also a variety of evidence of ancient human behavior .”

The experts found 30 fossils in total over the course of the dig. It is believed that these fragments date back to between 250,000 and 300,000 years ago. In 2006, the paleontologists uncovered a human bone and teeth, but many more fossils have been found since then. The remains are believed to be from 16 individuals.  It appears that early humans inhabited the cave for a considerable period of time.

According to the Xinhua news agency, the finds in the cave also include the remains of  ‘a human skull of the Middle Pleistocene period’. This is from at least a quarter of a million years ago and may even be older. The skull is very well-preserved and Xinhua reports that it has ‘a largely complete facial structure, most of the brain cranium, and one side of the mandible’.

Different types of ancient human fossils in contrast: A. Human fossil from Hualongdong Cave B. Peking Man fossil from Zhoukoudian site C. Fossil of Nanjing Homo erectus D. Human fossil found at the Dali Man site E. Human fossil found at Jinniushan Site F. Fossil of Maba Man. (Wu Xiujie)

Different types of ancient human fossils in contrast: A. Human fossil from Hualongdong Cave B. Peking Man fossil from Zhoukoudian site C. Fossil of Nanjing Homo erectus D. Human fossil found at the Dali Man site E. Human fossil found at Jinniushan Site F. Fossil of Maba Man. (Wu Xiujie )

The skull appeared to have belonged to a juvenile male and shows features that are similar to other types of humans found throughout the Pleistocene period in East Asia. A study of the skull would indicate that it had characteristics that prefigured the development of modern Asians .

To find a Pleistocene skull is remarkable and its well-preserved nature may even allow researchers to possibly reconstruct the facial appearance of the early human.

Skull fragments from the Chinese cave are put together to form a mostly complete Pleistocene skull. (Wu Xiujie)

Skull fragments from the Chinese cave are put together to form a mostly complete Pleistocene skull. ( Wu Xiujie )

Evidence for Human Evolution in East Asia

The find is of international significance because. according to ChinaPlus, the ‘fossil evidence for human evolution in East Asia during the Pleistocene was often fragmentary and scattered’. This made it difficult for researchers to understand human evolution in the region during the era, unlike in areas such as Africa.

However, the finds in Hualongdong are allowing experts to better understand human evolution in East Asia . They have now established that there was a great deal of continuity in the evolution of humans in the period from 200,000 to over 300,000 years ago in East Asia. This was suspected for a long time but the find in the collapsed cave is confirming the theory.

Insight into Life in the Pleistocene

Also found at the site were some 100 stone objects that had been crafted by the people who once made the cave their home and these are mainly rudimentary tools, such as scrapers.

The Chinese cave fossils and artifacts. (Chinanews.com)

The Chinese cave fossils and artifacts. ( Chinanews.com)

The dig also revealed the remains of up to 40 mammals. The artifacts and the animal remains are helping paleontologists to better understand the environment in which these early humans lived and how they managed to survive.

Those who have worked on the site believe that there are many exciting discoveries yet to be made. At present it is expected that the cave will be rated as a protected site to ensure it is preserved for further study. The findings from the research have recently been published in an American academic journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

Top Image: 300,000-year-old fossils of as many as 16 individual human ancestors have been found in a collapsed cave in China. Here is a reconstruction of a skull found at the site. Source: Wu Xiujie and Erik Trinkaus

By Ed Whelan

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