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Rewriting Human Origins, Ongoing in East Asia

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In recent Evolution News articles (Bechly 2017a, 2017b, 2017c, 2018), I have commented on paleoanthropological discoveries that overturned the cherished out-of-Africa scenario. Now, the rewriting of the story of human evolution continues with undampened enthusiasm. In a special report series, “Rewriting human evolution,” the journal New Scientist featured an article “Who are you? How the story of human origins is being rewritten” (Barras 2017) reviewing a lot of this modern research. This summer the article “Asia’s mysterious role in the early origins of humanity” (Douglas 2018a) was appropriately added to the series, because indeed many of the revolutionary new discoveries were made in China and the Indian subcontinent.

Rewritings from East Asia

The more recent East Asian rewritings of human prehistory commenced with the re-dating of two hominid fossils and stone artifacts, from Longgupo cave in Central China, as 2.48 million years old (Han et al. 2017), and the description of 2.588 million year old cut marks on bovid bones from the Siwalik Himalayan foothills in India (Dambricourt Malassé 2016, Dambricourt Malassé et al. 2016a, 2016b). These cut marks are so precise and required such a detailed knowledge of bovid anatomy that an anthropic origin seems the only possible explanation. These two findings are remarkable because they not only predate the previous oldest fossil remains of the genus Homo outside of Africa (from Dmanisi in Georgia about 1.85 million years ago), but even predate most of the oldest Homo fossils from Africa, except for a recently described single jawbone from Ledi-Geraru in Ethiopia (Villmoare et al. 2015), dated to 2.8 million year ago. Therefore, the new discoveries suggest either an earlier origin and migration of our genus Homo to Asia, or a prior migration of australopithecine hominins into Asia, or even an independent development of non-hominin tool-using apes.

This year a study by Zhu et al. (2018) documented hominin occupation of the Chinese Loess Plateau near Shangchen from 2.12 to 1.26 million years ago, based on a continuous sequence of 96 excavated stone tools. Consequently the presence of a very early Homo species in Asia is confirmed beyond reasonable doubt and “makes it necessary to reconsider the timing of initial dispersal of early hominins in the Old World” (Barras 2018a, Kappelman 2018). Unsurprisingly, this discovery was celebrated by the international media as another rewriting of the human story (Choi 2018, Greshko 2018b).

The Dali Skull from China

Last year came a ground-breaking new study of the famous Dali skull from China. This turned out to be 268,000 to 258,000 years old and belonged to a human that was morphologically intermediate between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. I have already commented here (Bechly 2017c) on the important implications of this new research that refuted a purely African origin of modern humans (Qiu 2016, Athreya & Wu 2017, Bae et al. 2017, Douglas 2018b).

The very recent review of Bae et al. (2017) suggested a migration of Homo sapiens into East Asia 120,000 to 70,000 years ago, which already was a significant departure from the previous consensus that assumed a single out-of-Africa migration wave about 60,000 years ago.

But earlier this year even this revised scenario was questioned in a new study by Hershkovitz et al. (2018), who described an upper jaw fragment of Homo sapiens from the Misliya Cave in Israel, which could be dated to 177,000 years. It thus represents the earliest evidence for modern humans outside of Africa, 50,000 years earlier than previously thought (Callaway 2018, Pickerell 2018). The new discovery fits well with 175,000-year-old stone tools from other sites in the Middle East, which rather resemble those used by Homo sapiens in East Africa (Groucutt et al. 2015).

“Swiss Army Knife” of Prehistoric Tools 

The next rewriting followed with a Nature paper by Akhilesh et al. (2018), who described more than 7,000 stone tools from Attirampakkam in India, dated 385,000 to 172,000 years ago and identified as more advanced Levallois (mode III) stone tool technology, which has also been dubbed the “Swiss Army knife” of prehistoric tools (Anonymous 2018). This pushed back the advent of Middle Palaeolithic culture in Asia for about 100,000 to 250,000 years. The authors did not dare to attribute the tool culture to a specific human species, but at least mentioned that previous evidence had suggested that Middle Palaeolithic culture spread with modern humans out of Africa around 125,000 year ago or later (Greshko 2018a, Kamrani 2018, Marshall 2018). In Africa and Europe the Levallois culture appears at a similar time and is generally associated with modern humans and sometimes Neanderthals but never Homo erectus. Of course some Darwinist paleoanthropologists remained skeptical about the new discovery. They doubted that the tools really can be attributed to Levallois culture, or they suggested that artifact might have been developed independently by archaic humans rather than imported by more modern humans (Katz 2018, Wong 2018). It seems strange how much difference in interpretation is possible in a simple stone tool and its attribution to a certain technological stage, which was also a reason why the Levallois concept had been criticized in the past as reflecting subjective bias (Perpére 1986). Just like paleontology in general, paleoanthropology often is a very soft science, resting on many speculative interpretations.

Anyway, the next rewriting did not take long and may silence the critics. Just a few days ago Hu et al. (2018) published their research in the journal Nature. They describe 170,000-years-old Levallois stone tools from the Middle Pleistocene of Guanyindong in southwest China. New Scientist comments, wait for it, “Complex stone tools in China may re-write our species’ ancient history” (Barras 2018b). Yet another rewrite? Not again!

An Honorary Mention

Finally, an honorary mention of a minor Asian rewriting should go to a recent study by Shipton et al. (2018) on hominin remains from the Arabian peninsula. The authors suggested the weird hypothesis that laziness led to the extinction of Homo erectus, since the latter used only “least-effort strategies” for tool-making (ANU 2018), in contrast with Neanderthals and modern humans. This hardly seems plausible considering the fact that Homo erectus survived for at least 1.8 million years and spread over three continents with very different habitats, building spears and rafts, etc. It is also hardly compatible with the claim that Neanderthals and modern humans evolved from a Homo erectus-like stock. This kind of reasoning reminds one of the racist stories about the superiority of Europeans over “primitive races” told by Darwinian anthropologists for a long time — that is, until it became politically incorrect and was recognized as a peril to your chances of getting public research funding. Nevertheless, this dangerous way of thinking is clearly still inherent in Darwinian science, having been only superficially tamed by the constraints of modern Western culture.

Recommended: A Dose of Skepticism

Since many evolutionists tend to deliberately misrepresent any critique, it must be clearly stated: there is absolutely no problem at all with “rewriting” in the sense of scientific progress! The reason all these new discoveries are so noteworthy is not because they represent the usual progress of science, but because they overturn the standard textbook wisdom that had been promulgated as undisputable fact for many years. All who doubted this “truth” were dressed down by Darwinists as ideologically motivated know-nothings. Not only skeptics of Darwinism, but even a few maverick evolutionary anthropologists, who still favored a multiregional model of human origins over the out-of-Africa story, were often marginalized as fringe scientists or even crackpots. History teaches that a healthy skepticism, including about the new “rewritten” consensus on human origins, is the most appropriate attitude. There is no fact of evolution in general and also no fact of human evolutionary origins in particular, but just a collection of very tentative hypotheses with relatively weak and controversial supporting evidence. Alternative hypotheses like intelligent design are far from being falsified by the human fossil record and remain legitimate players in the field of human origins research, especially when they better explain the totality of available data.


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Photo: Levallois stone tool technology, by Muséum de Toulouse [CC BY-SA 3.0].