Forty-seven human teeth dug out of a cave in southern China reveal that our species, Homo sapiens, may have arrived in China 80,000 to 120,000 years ago, much earlier than prevailing theories suggest.
A study published Wednesday in the science journal Nature says teeth from the Fuyan Cave site in Hunan province's Daoxian County place our species in southern China 30,000 to 70,000 years earlier than in the eastern Mediterranean or Europe.
"The model that is generally accepted is that modern humans left Africa only 50,000 years ago," said Maria Martinon-Torres, a researcher at University College London and a co-author of the study. "In this case, we are saying the Homo sapien is out of Africa much earlier."
Older traces of modern humans have been seen outside Africa, such as the roughly 100,000-year-old remains from the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel. But many researchers had argued that those remains were only evidence of unsuccessful efforts at wider migration.
The excavations for the Fuyan Cave also found the remains of hyenas, extinct giant pandas and dozens of other animal species. The researchers found no stone tools; it is likely that humans never lived in the cave and their remains were instead hauled in by predators.
It is also not clear why modern humans would have reached East Asia so long before they reached Europe. Martinon-Torres suggests that humans could not gain a foothold in Europe until Neanderthals there were teetering on extinction. The frigid climate of Ice Age Europe may have presented another barrier to people adapted to Africa.