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. All 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!