Homo sapiens showed up in southeast Asia and Australia fairly early on in our move out of Africa. Some previous archaeology showed that we were sailing off to places like Indonesia and Australia before we were in Europe. But a recent discovery in Laos has pushed even that date back a whopping 20,000 years.
The study was led by University of Illinois anthropologist Laura Shackelford, who, along with anthropologist Fabrice Demeter from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, were the first to look for ancient bones in Laos since the early 1900s. Back then, a team found human remnants in another cave which were dated at about 16,000 years old — considerably younger than the newly found skull which is estimated to be between 46,000 and 63,000 years old.
To establish the timeframe, Shackelford and Demeter used radiocarbon dating and luminescence techniques to determine the age of the soil layers above the remains. The skull itself was found about eight feet below the cave’s surface.
The skull fragments were reasonably well preserved, allowing the anthropologists to determine that it belonged to a modern human. No artifacts were found alongisde the skull, an indication that the cave was not likely a dwelling or burial site. Shackelford and Demeter theorize that the ancient human died outside, and that the body washed into the cave at some later point.
As far as the anthropological canon is concerned, the discovery strongly suggests that early modern humans who left Africa did not simply migrate along the coast and go south to the islands of Southeast Asia and Australia. Rather, they ventured north into very different types of terrain.
Speaking to io9, Shackelford told us that she never actually expected to find fossils. “This discovery suggests that modern humans followed multiple migratory paths once they arrived in Southeast Asia,” she said. “Traditionally, we have assumed that they followed coastal routes towards island Southeast Asia and Australia, but this very early modern human was using an inland, mountainous route.”
Shackelford noted that the Tam Pa Ling fossil has clear implications for modern human origins broadly and for the earliest migrations into Southeast Asia.
“It supports an Out-of-Africa model for modern human origins and not a multiregional hypothesis because the anatomy is clearly modern and without features that are typical of local, archaic populations,” she told io9. “Given its early date, it also suggests that the migration out of Africa occurred relatively quickly — genetic data indicates that the earliest migration of modern humans into Southeast Asia occurred at least 60,000 years ago.”
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