Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Plea For the Importance of East Asia in Human Origins

In response to the discovery of new archaeological evidence from the island of Sulawesi, the Conversation makes a plea for the role of East Asia in human origins, who argue that eurocentrism and Africacentrism have ruled the roost in hominin research.  The article lays out some of the research that has gone on in the last 150 years or so, ending with the recent discovery and controversy surrounding Homo floresiensis.  The author suggests that we are missing some very important information:
Stone tools and animal fossils dated to between 100,000 and more than 200,000 years old have been found in Walanae Basin of Sulawesi: the oldest archaeology in the island, and showing it was inhabited by a unknown archaic species long before modern humans were on the scene.
Sadly, no human bones were found, so we have no idea who made the tools.

I suspect they were made by a species that we don’t see anywhere else. Not
Homo erectus, nor Homo floresiensis, but a novel one. Why?

Sulawesi sits on the eastern edge of the famous biographic zone ‘Wallacea’ - marking the transition from an Asian ecology to an Australasian one - and has a truly remarkable fauna and flora.

It’s also located just to the north of Flores and so was probably on the North-South migration path for many animals including early humans.
The mammals that inhabit Sulawesi today are remarkable for their diversity: of the 127 endemic mammals that inhabit Indonesia, 62 percent are unique to Sulawesi.
Among the primates, there are seven endemic species of the monkey genus Macaca and at least seven Tarsier species probably more.
In my view, the same kinds of evolutionary pressures that led to this remarkable diversity of non-human primates would have acted also on the early humans inhabiting the island.
A couple of hundred thousand years is plenty of time for new species to form.
This is not the first argument to be made for non-existent evidence. That argument has been made variously to explain the transition from one of any number of australopithecines to early Homo and archaeological evidence for Middle Palaeolithic populations in Japan is sitting off the coast of south Japan in several different scenarios.While it is quite interesting to contemplate the peculiarity of the faunal diversity of Sulewesi, it is a far cry to posit a new species responsible for the tools that might be there.  It is quite true that we do not know exactly what is going on with H. floresiensis or the strange island from which it hails, but that does not warrant a separate species.

He is, however, correct that East Asia has often been seen as secondarily important in hominin circles, and the recent discoveries in south China ought to strongly suggest that this is not so. 

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