Caves figure highly in discoveries of hominin remains, fossil riches from those near Johannesburg in South Africa and at Atapuerca in northern Spain having set the world of palaeoanthropology reeling in the last few months. As often as not the caves chosen by hominins for day-to-day living, refuge or ritual, places where carnivores dragged some of our early relatives, or into which they fell accidentally, formed in limestones. There are few places so well endowed with karst features than southern China, a fair number of caves in them having rich deposits of bat guano to which farmers have beaten well-trodden paths to dig it out for fertiliser. One such is Fuyan Cave in Daoxian County, Hunan. Manure mining there had done a great deal of the heavy work faced by archaeologists, having stopped when it reached a hard layer of calcite speleothem or flowstone that underpaves more or less the entire cave floor. Initial trial investigations found three clearly human teeth at the surface, encouraging further work. Digging through the flowstone revealed sediments rich in fossils, mainly teeth which preserve better than other remains in humid conditions. As well as teeth from a variety of mammals, large and small, 47 human teeth emerged. Close study revealed dental features that are irrefutably those of anatomically modern humans (Liu, W. and 13 others 2015. The earliest unequivocally modern humans in southern China. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature15696). Remarkably, many of the teeth are in far better condition than my own, and those of many living people with access to dental expertise.
The true significance of the excavation emerged only when 230Th dating revealed the age of the flowstone cap to the old cave sediments. A small stalagmite protruding from its surface yielded a minimum age of ~80 ka: by far the oldest date for anatomically modern human remains outside of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. The dating produced older ages around 120 ka with equally good precision. Before this discovery the date of migration of Africans to populate Eurasia was thought to be about 60 ka from imprecise dating based on genetics of a range of living Eurasians and Africans – a ‘molecular clock’ – and the earliest sign of humans found in Australia. Consequently, finds in South India of artefacts beneath 74 ka ash from the super-eruption of the Mount Toba caldera have been regarded by many, other than the finders, as having been made by Homo erectus. Dates of 100 ka for modern human occupation of the Levant were thought to represent a failed attempt at migration out of Africa by a northern route. Both these important findings now take on renewed significance. Yet a 30 to 40 ka time gap between the Fuyan people and the previous dates for the earliest signs of migration into China, Borneo and Australia (40-50 ka) begs the question, ‘Did this early group of far-travelled migrants survive to become ancestors of modern Chinese people?’ There are many possible scenarios that only future discoveries might validate: simply goiung extinct; failure to survive the encounter with earlier migrants, such as H. erectus or the Denisovans; assimilation into those older populations.
As if to counter this, a multinational group of collaborators have sequenced and analysed the genome from a 4500 year-old male skeleton discovered in the Mota Cave of the Gamo highlands of southern Ethiopia (Llorente, M.G. and 18 others 2015. Ancient Ethiopian genome reveals extensive Eurasian admixture throughout the African continent. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2879). Comparison with what is now a virtual library of living human genomes showed that this man’s genetic make-up most closely matched that of the Ari, a tribe living in the area today. What was most interesting is that part of the modern Ari genome – between 4 to 7% – is not present in the 4500 year-old sequence. Instead, it matches those of modern Sardinians and a prehistoric German farmer. Yet it occurs in people living not only in Ethiopia, but also in central, western and southern Africa to varying degrees. There seems to have been a ‘backflow’ of people into the whole of Africa from Eurasia, estimated to have occurred some 3500-4000 years ago and probably involving a large influx. By that time farming was already established in Africa, so the migrants may have had some advantage, either culturally or physically, to encourage their wide spread through the continent.
In tropical climates, DNA is likely to break down quickly and little if any fossil DNA has been recovered from prehistoric Africans. In this case, burial in a cave at high elevation may have helped preserve it, but also the target for extraction was the petrous bone from the inner ear whose density seems to allow DNA a better change of long-term survival. With continually improving DNA analysis and sequencing techniques more news is surely going to emerge from past African populations.
Gibbons, A. 2015. Prehistoric Eurasians streamed into Africa, genome shows. Science, v. 350 (9 October 2015), p. 149.