Considerable attention has been paid to dating the earliest appearance of hominins outside Africa. The earliest skeletal and artefactual evidence for the genus Homo in Asia currently comes from Dmanisi, Georgia, and is dated to approximately 1.77–1.85 million years ago (Ma)1. Two incisors that may belong to Homo erectus come from Yuanmou, south China, and are dated to 1.7 Ma2; the next-oldest evidence is an H. erectus cranium from Lantian (Gongwangling)—which has recently been dated to 1.63 Ma3—and the earliest hominin fossils from the Sangiran dome in Java, which are dated to about 1.5–1.6 Ma4. Artefacts from Majuangou III5 and Shangshazui6 in the Nihewan basin, north China, have also been dated to 1.6–1.7 Ma. Here we report an Early Pleistocene and largely continuous artefact sequence from Shangchen, which is a newly discovered Palaeolithic locality of the southern Chinese Loess Plateau, near Gongwangling in Lantian county. The site contains 17 artefact layers that extend from palaeosol S15—dated to approximately 1.26 Ma—to loess L28, which we date to about 2.12 Ma. This discovery implies that hominins left Africa earlier than indicated by the evidence from Dmanisi.For the new site sequence data, we don't have any hominin remains so we don't know exactly what these folks looked like but the tools are very primitive. A section from a companion piece reads thus:
The identity of their makers is, for now, unclear: no hominin bones have been recovered at Shangchen. “We would all love to find a hominin — preferably one with a tool in its hand,” says Dennell. Homo erectus is one possibility, because some of the earliest members of this species were found at Dmanisi. But Dennell thinks that the Shangchen toolmakers belonged to an earlier species in the genus Homo.Before his death, Grover Krantz argued for the presence of Australopithecus in East Asia but could never get anyone to come on board with him. Everyone was pretty content to label what was coming out of the ground as Homo erectus.I think it would be a stretch if the hominins from Shangchen were australopithecines since we don't see any advanced species of Australopithecus in East or North Africa between 2 and 2.5 mya. In fact, Au. boisei drops out around 2.1, likely out-competed by early Homo.
Petraglia and Rezek both say that the age of the tools — not to mention the possibility that hominins arrived in China even earlier than the 2.12-million-year mark — suggests that the toolmaker was a species such as Homo habilis. This relatively small-brained hominin is thought to have been confined to Africa between around 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago.
Jungers holds open the possibility that the Shangchen toolmaker was a species of Australopithecus, a group of more ape-like hominins to which the iconic fossil Lucy belongs. So far, all Australopithecus fossils have been discovered in Africa.
Nonetheless, something was making stone tools in China at 2.1 mya and that is “Yuuuuge” news.