Modern humans’ distant relatives left Africa earlier than previously thought—rewriting a key chapter in humankind’s epic prequel, according to a discovery unveiled on Wednesday in Nature.
Nearly a hundred stone tools found at the Shangchen site in central China may push back the spread of our ancient cousins—hominins—out of Africa by more than a quarter million years.
The toolmakers lived at Shangchen on and off for 800,000 years between 2.1 and 1.3 million years ago, leaving behind tools that are unprecedented outside of Africa. The site’s oldest tools are roughly 300,000 years older than Dmanisi, a 1.8-million-year-old site in the Republic of Georgia with the oldest known fossils of our extinct cousin Homo erectus.
“Finding artifacts that you knew were around two million years old—and therefore the oldest outside Africa—was for me, as a palaeoanthropologist, really exciting,” says study coauthor Robin Dennell, a professor at the University of Exeter.
“More people have climbed Everest than found stone tools that old.”
“I’ve always said that once the Chinese researchers start looking for evidence on a similar scale as all the money spent in Africa, things will turn up!” exclaims Gerrit van den Bergh, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wollongong who wasn’t involved with the study.
“It again shows how little we actually know.”
NEW YORK – Stone tools recovered from an excavation in China suggest that our evolutionary forerunners trekked out of Africa earlier than we had thought.
Until now, the oldest evidence of human-like creatures outside Africa came from 1.8-million-year-old artifacts and skulls found in the Georgian town of Dmanisi. The new find pushes that back by at least 250,000 years. There have been other claims of even older fossil discoveries, the study authors said, but those remain unproven.
“There may be older evidence in places like India and Pakistan, but so far … the evidence is not strong enough to convince most of the research community,” said study co-author Robin Dennell of Exeter University in England. “With this type of claim, for an early human presence in a region, the evidence has to be absolutely water-tight and bomb-proof.”
“It’s absolutely a new story,” said archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who did not participate in the study. “It means that early humans were getting out of Africa way earlier than we ever realized.”
That exit came long before our own species, Homo sapiens, even appeared. The researchers believe the tools were made by another member of the Homo evolutionary group. “Our discovery means that it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa,” Dennell said.
Hominins — humans and their extinct predecessors and relatives — are believed to have emerged in Africa more than 6 million years ago. They are thought to have left the continent in several migration waves starting about 2 million years ago.