Hello, Dali


250 kya.  This skull, from China, isn’t much like Homo neanderthalensis or modern Homo sapiens. Both Neanderthals and H. sapiens are specialized in different directions, in ways that aren’t just an automatic consequence of increasing brain size. In Neanderthals, the middle of the face is pulled way forward, in front of a football shaped braincase. In H. sapiens (us), the face is tucked well under the skull, beneath a globular braincase. (We’ll have more to say about these changes later: sapiens skull shape probably has to do with re-engineering the vocal tract.) The Dali skull by contrast looks like a generic transitional late Homo erectus / archaic Homo sapiens (the latter being just a wastebasket, “I dunno. Whaddayou think it is?” category). It isn’t totally clear where Dali belongs phylogenetically. It could be part of/ancestral to an East/Southeast Asian group called Denisovans. Denisovans have come to be known by their genes, which have been found in an ancient Siberian fingerbone, and (at low levels) in some modern Melanesians and Australian aborigines. What we don’t yet know for certain is whether Dali (and similar finds like the less securely dated Jinniushang skull) had these Denisovan genes.

Asia is not as well-studied as Europe or Africa when it comes to this period in human evolution. But this is changing rapidly, with Chinese paleoanthropologists increasingly active. Interestingly, a lot of Chinese scholars are still committed to the Multi-Regional Evolution theory, which has it that local Homo erectus in East Asia evolved directly into present-day East Asians. DNA evidence is pretty overwhelmingly against this, and in favor of modern humans moving Out Of Africa later, with just a bit of hanky-panky with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Here’s a news story, just out from Nature, of How China is rewriting the book on human origins.


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