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Stone Tools Discovered In China Suggest That Hominins Left Africa Earlier Than First Thought

Jul 12, 2018 09:54 PM EDT
Loess Plateau
Archaeologists unearth stone tools in China dating back to 2.1 million years old, the oldest ever evidence of homonins outside of Africa. These tools are 1.3 million years older than modern humans.
(Photo : 黄河山曲 | Wikimedia Commons)

Stone tools that are 2.1 million years old have been found in China, indicating humans made it out of Africa much earlier than believed.

Hominins Left Africa For Asia

Now, archaeologists unearthed 96 pieces of ancient stone tools within 17 sedimentary layers in the Loess Plateau of the Shangchen region, China.

Using paleomagnetic dating, the team analyzed the newly uncovered tools and discovered that ancient humans — likely Homo erectus — lived in this region of China as early as 2.1 million years ago, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

It's not far-fetched as the site is only 9,000 miles east of Africa, which is known to be the birthplace of all hominins, Gizmodo reports. Hominins include all species that existed after the human lineage or the genus Homo.

The tools that were found were varied, some of which showed signs of use. Animal fossils were also excavated at the site later, although none had signs of butchery or animal processing.

It's important to note that the dating was done on the minerals, not the artifacts, which is called indirect dating. Therefore, there is a possibility that the tools aren't actually as old as the minerals around it, although it's unlikely since there are few reasons it would have gotten to that layer.

What The Findings Mean

The study's results overturn previous scientific beliefs about the migration of some of the earliest humans. Prior to this find, the oldest evidence of hominin presence outside Africa were 1.85-million-year-old human remains found in Dmanisi, Georgia.

As it turns out, ancient humans left Africa for Asia not Georgia at least 250,000 years earlier and around 1.3 million years before Homo sapiens even came into existence.

Further study is certainly recommended to unearth more details about the hominin's journey to China.

"It could be Homo erectus, but, because it's so early, it's also possible it's an even earlier ancestor," Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who was not involved in the study, explains to Live Science. "It really opens all sorts of questions with respect to migrations out of Africa and the ability of these humans to adapt to various ecological circumstances."

Katerina Harvati from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment appreciates the new study, telling Gizmodo that the dating techniques are appropriate and the artifacts very convincing. However, she's also curious about the reason why the early humans stayed in Africa for as long as they did, especially after the development of stone tools 3 million years ago.

"This finding does push back such a geographic expansion, and also appears to show that human presence might have been closely linked to favourable climatic conditions," Harvati explains. "It will help test our hypotheses about what the critical factor for early human migrations was."

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