Some Western researchers suggest that there is a hint of nationalism in Chinese palaeontologists' support for continuity. "The Chinese—they do not accept the idea that H. sapiens evolved in Africa," says one researcher. "They want everything to come from China."
Chinese researchers reject such allegations. "This has nothing to do with nationalism," says Wu. It's all about the evidence—the transitional fossils and archaeological artefacts, he says. "Everything points to continuous evolution in China from H. erectus to modern human."
But the continuity-with-hybridization model is countered by overwhelming genetic data that point to Africa as the wellspring of modern humans. Studies of Chinese populations show that 97.4% of their genetic make-up is from ancestral modern humans from Africa, with the rest coming from extinct forms such as Neanderthals and Denisovans5. "If there had been significant contributions from Chinese H. erectus, they would show up in the genetic data," says Li Hui, a population geneticist at Fudan University in Shanghai. Wu counters that the genetic contribution from archaic hominins in China could have been missed because no DNA has yet been recovered from them.
Many researchers say that there are ways to explain the existing Asian fossils without resorting to continuity with hybridization. The Zhirendong hominins, for instance, could represent an exodus of early modern humans from Africa between 120,000 and 80,000 years ago. Instead of remaining in the Levant in the Middle East, as was thought previously, these people could have expanded into east Asia, says Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK.
Other evidence backs up this hypothesis: excavations at a cave in Daoxian in China's Hunan province have yielded 47 fossil teeth so modern-looking that they could have come from the mouths of people today. But the fossils are at least 80,000 years old, and perhaps 120,000 years old, Liu and his colleagues reported last year6. "Those early migrants may have interbred with archaic populations along the way or in Asia, which could explain Zhirendong people's primitive traits," says Petraglia.
Another possibility is that some of the Chinese fossils, including the Dali skull, represent the mysterious Denisovans, a species identified from Siberian fossils that are more than 40,000 years old. Palaeontologists don't know what the Denisovans looked like, but studies of DNA recovered from their teeth and bones indicate that this ancient population contributed to the genomes of modern humans, especially Australian Aborigines, Papua New Guineans and Polynesians—suggesting that Denisovans might have roamed Asia.
María Martinón-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist at University College London, is among those who proposed that some of the Chinese hominins were Denisovans. She worked with IVPP researchers on an analysis7, published last year, of a fossil assemblage uncovered at Xujiayao in Hebei province—including partial jaws and nine teeth dated to 125,000–100,000 years ago. The molar teeth are massive, with very robust roots and complex grooves, reminiscent of those from Denisovans, she says.
A third idea is even more radical. It emerged when Martinón-Torres and her colleagues compared more than 5,000 fossil teeth from around the world: the team found that Eurasian specimens are more similar to each other than to African ones8. That work and more recent interpretations of fossil skulls suggest that Eurasian hominins evolved separately from African ones for a long stretch of time. The researchers propose that the first hominins that left Africa 1.8 million years ago were the eventual source of modern humans. Their descendants mostly settled in the Middle East, where the climate was favourable, and then produced waves of transitional hominins that spread elsewhere. One Eurasian group went to Indonesia, another gave rise to Neanderthals and Denisovans, and a third ventured back into Africa and evolved into H. sapiens, which later spread throughout the world. In this model, modern humans evolved in Africa, but their immediate ancestor originated in the Middle East. Not everybody is convinced. "Fossil interpretations are notoriously problematic," says Svante Pääbo, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. But DNA from Eurasian fossils dating to the start of the human race could help to reveal which story—or combination—is correct. China is now making a push in that direction. Qiaomei Fu, a palaeogeneticist who did her PhD with Pääbo, returned home last year to establish a lab to extract and sequence ancient DNA at the IVPP. One of her immediate goals is to see whether some of the Chinese fossils belong to the mysterious Denisovan group. The prominent molar teeth from Xujiayao will be an early target. "I think we have a prime suspect here," she says.
Despite the different interpretations of the Chinese fossil record, everybody agrees that the evolutionary tale in Asia is much more interesting than people appreciated before. But the details remain fuzzy, because so few researchers have excavated in Asia.
When they have, the results have been startling. In 2003, a dig on Flores island in Indonesia turned up a diminutive hominin9, which researchers named Homo floresiensis and dubbed the hobbit. With its odd assortment of features, the creature still provokes debate about whether it is a dwarfed form of H. erectus or some more primitive lineage that made it all the way from Africa to southeast Asia and lived until as recently as 60,000 years ago. Last month, more surprises emerged from Flores, where researchers found the remains of a hobbit-like hominin in rocks about 700,000 years old10.
Recovering more fossils from all parts of Asia will clearly help to fill in the gaps. Many palaeoanthropologists also call for better access to existing materials. Most Chinese fossils—including some of the finest specimens, such as the Yunxian and Dali skulls—are accessible only to a handful of Chinese palaeontologists and their collaborators. "To make them available for general studies, with replicas or CT scans, would be fantastic," says Stringer. Moreover, fossil sites should be dated much more rigorously, preferably by multiple methods, researchers say.
But all agree that Asia—the largest continent on Earth—has a lot more to offer in terms of unravelling the human story. "The centre of gravity," says Petraglia, "is shifting eastward."
Phys.org. 2016. “Fossil finds in China are challenging ideas about the evolution of modern humans and our closest relatives”. Phys.org. Posted: July 15, 2016. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2016-07-fossil-china-ideas-evolution-modern.html