100,000-year-old human skull found in Henan, China

If you’re reached your saturation coefficient with my coverage of population genetics, news of a 100,000 year old Homo from Henan, China should be welcoming. Human Fossils found in Henan, ChinaAll I have so far is this press release, which is confusing. A quote from Li Zhanyang, an lead excavator with the Henan cultural relics and archaeology research institute, brings up some questions,

“The fossil consisted of 16 pieces of the skull with protruding eyebrows and a small forehead. More astonishing than the completeness of the skull is that it still has a fossilized membrane on the inner side, so scientists can track the nerves of the Paleolithic ancestors.”

I’m thinking somethings were lost in translation. First, fossils do not have eyebrows. Maybe a protruding brow ridge? That could be what they are trying to get at. Also, the article doesn’t say what membrane was fossilized within the brain case. My best guess is that it is the dura mater, the tough outer layer of the meninges that surrounds the brain. Even with the dura mater, it is hard to trace nerves from a Paleolithic fossil. One can probably trace the sulci and gyri and overall gyrification pattern imprinted from the brain, that will be useful in comparing the variation in the amount of fissures of archaic Homo brain.

Anyways, I’m super excited about this fossil find. No word on whether or not this fossils is Homo erectus or Homo sapiens. During this time period, two fossils come to mind that complicate assigning the taxonomy. First is, Jinniushan man, a 300k to 200k year old specimen that shows features of H. erectus, but with a endocranial volume similar to H. sapiens, as well as a overall thin cranial vault, expansion and rounding of the occipital and parietal region, the position of maximum cranial breadth, and overall facial morphology have resulted in Jinniushan being allotted to archaic Homo sapiens. Contending Jinniushan, are the Homo erectus looking Peking man fossils, which were lost in transit during World War II. These fossils are also from a similar time period.

This new Henan specimen is around 100,000 years old. Because of this date, I will very surprised if it is assigned as Homo erectus. Trinkaus’ 40k year old Tianyuan human also from Zhoukoudian, where the Peking fossils were found, would be awesome to compare. But the Tianyuan fossils can’t be used to compare these new Henan fossils, because the Henan collection is only of cranial bones. The closest things we have to cranial bones with the Tianyuan human is a mandible.

All hope is not lost, the endocranial volume from these new fossils can probably be calculated, which will give very good data on how to annotate this specimen. If the specimen is estimated to be an adult with a brain volume of around 1100cc or less, that would be really interesting!

17 thoughts on “100,000-year-old human skull found in Henan, China

  1. I’m thinking somethings were lost in translation. First, fossils do not have eyebrows. Maybe a protruding brow ridge? That could be what they are trying to getting at. (trying to getting at) thats funny lol … i got lost in translation

  2. Wittym, good question. Yes, erectus is considered human but not a modern human. But it wasn’t a modern human. “Modern humans” are defined as the Homo sapiens species, of which the only extant subspecies is Homo sapiens sapiens. For clarification’s sake, any member of the genus Homo, is a human.

  3. At the Guardian Unlimited,they reduce the age little, so now its 80,000 to 100,000 years. Still no information about what kind of Homo is it. Homo heidelbergensis is assumed to be in south Asia in that time. (Btw: Can Jinniushan man be an intermix of pekinesis and heidelbergensis?)

  4. Hrdonka. I’d guess it most likely is an intermix. I suspect various human groups have been moving around the world and mixing since H. erectus times. In fact it seems to be how most species change, or evolve if you prefer. I can’t see how examining the DNA will help though. The fossil is almost certainly older than any existing Y-chromosome lines and probably older than any mtDNA surviving outside Africa.

    Kambiz, thanks for bringing our attention to the find, and providing us with so much other fascinating information in your posts.

  5. hrdonka, being that it was just discovered about a month ago, I think it is premature to estimate a final consensus on what the fossil is classified as. I most likely think it’s a sapiens, because most Homo erectus disappeared from the fossil record roughly 400,000 years ago.

    But fossils such as the hominids from Ngandong and Sambungmacan, Central Java represent H. erectus and persisted up until 50,000 years ago.

    I just raise the possibility that this Henan hominid could be an erectus specimen because it falls at an uncertain time in the Asian human fossil record.

    Off topic, did you catch the ‘multiregional’ tone in the Guardian Unlimited article?

  6. Terry, thanks for the comment. In regards to your concern,

    “I can’t see how examining the DNA will help though. The fossil is almost certainly older than any existing Y-chromosome lines and probably older than any mtDNA surviving outside Africa.”

    mtDNA can resolve back after 100,000 years. Currently, mitochondrial Eve, the name given by researchers to a woman who is defined as the matrilineal most recent common ancestor for all currently living humans has been calculated to have lived about 140,000 years ago based on correlating elapsed time with observed genetic drift. Y-chromosomal Adam is calculated to have been around 60,000 years ago.

    Both these individuals are thought to be of African origin, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find mtDNA surviving outside Africa. Advances in ancient DNA extraction, will fill in this gap. Also, I’m not doubting that African origin of modern humans, but the reason why we don’t think of genetically modern humans outside of Africa prior to 140-100,000 years ago could be because of the sample of people that were screened.

  7. TerryT and Kambiz, thanx for your comment. This ‘multiregional’ tone comes from Chinese, i think its kind of political stuff. As for DNA, i don’t believe 100k years sample will bring some results, moreover this sample is fossilized. I think the oldest sample of mtDNA was from 40k years of Australia Mungo man. BTW: this Mongo man sample was the proof of intermixing – its mtDNA was somewhere between moder human and neanderthal, while the skull was anatomically modern.

  8. Bert, wouldn’t we all like to see an accurate date on this fossil? But unfortunately carbon dating can only date materials up to about 60,000 years ago. So, unfortunately you’re not gonna see what you’d like to see.

  9. Modern man started about 6000-7000 years ago as we know today. So the question is what is this so called early mankind? We know the earth is very old compared to our time span much older then the first life.

    The question comes up many times of the bible . We know Jesus was the 1st born {made by almighty God} Genis also speak’s of when creation was made ” lets us make man in our image” also ” all things were made through him and for him” {jesus was there with God in the beginning} “they were made for his pleasure” so the dinosaur’s, early designs of mankind, other species design long gone very well could have been made for teaching purpose. God almighty with his son Jesus, after all the bible also speakes of when the angles were created and Jesus was there, and all the universes.

    So yes early forms of mankind life could have lived and then modern man was created. Look around how similar is many life forms to each other yet different not related.

  10. Hunk wrote:

    “the bible also speakes of when the angles were created.”

    Right angles, acute angles, obtuse angles or all of them?

  11. Judging by the photos, it seems to show many similarities to the Steinheim skull from Germany. Both should be classified as late Homo heidelburgensis.

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