Ancient Human Fossils Reveal Early Human Diversity

April 9, 2015 / Laos, Asia
Researchers found an ancient human skull, left, with modern characteristics, and a human jaw, right, with modern and archaic traits, in the same cave in northern Laos.

Researchers found an ancient human skull, left, with modern characteristics, and a human jaw, right, with modern and archaic traits, in the same cave in northern Laos. Photo by Fabrice Demeter

An ancient human skull and a jawbone found a few meters away from each other in a cave in northern Laos add to the evidence that early modern humans were physically quite varied.

In a paper published in PLoS One on Monday, researchers at the University of Illinois and National Museum of Natural History in Paris noticed that unlike the skull, which is the oldest modern human fossil found in Southeast Asia, the jawbone has both modern and archaic human traits.

In addition to being incredibly small in overall size, this jaw has a mixture of traits that combine typical modern human anatomy, such as the presence of a protruding chin, with traits that are more common of our archaic ancestors like Neandertals – for example, very thick bone to hold the molars in place. Laura Shackelford, University of Illinois anthropology professor and lead author

As both specimens were dated to roughly the same age, 46,000 to 63,000 years ago, the find gives further credence to the idea that humans have always been diverse in appearance.

Some researchers have used these features as evidence that modern humans migrating into new regions must have interbred with the archaic populations already present in those regions. But a more productive way to look at this variation is to see it as we see people today – showing many traits along a continuum. Laura Shackelford, University of Illinois anthropology professor and lead author

Found in 2009 in a cave known as Tam Pa Ling in the Annamite Mountains of present-day Laos, the skull pushed back the date of modern human migration through the region by as much as 20,000 years.

Tam Pa Ling is an exceptional site because it shows that very early modern humans migrating and settling in eastern Asia demonstrated a wide range of anatomy. Laura Shackelford, University of Illinois anthropology professor and lead author

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