Newsweek (Yes, that Newsweek) has a story on the reexamination of the Chinese Dali cranium, in light of the revised dates for the Jebel Irhoud skulls. Kastalia Medrano writes:
Known as the Dali skull, it was discovered nearly 40 years ago in China’s Shaanxi province. It belonged to a member of the early hominin species Homo erectus. Its facial structure and brain case are intact, despite being dated to around 260,000 years ago. The Dali skull is so old that archaeologists initially didn’t believe it could share features with the modern Homo sapiens.
But Xinzhi Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing believed that due to the overwhelming physical similarities, Homo erectus must have shared DNA with Homo sapiens. After decades of this idea being dismissed by mainstream academia, Wu and a colleague, Sheela Athreya of Texas A&M University, recently reanalyzed the Dali skull and found it may force us to rewrite our evolutionary history after all. It’s incredibly similar to two separate Homo sapiens skulls previously found in Morocco. “I really wasn’t expecting that,” Athreya told New Scientist.
If we’d found only the Moroccan skulls, and not the Dali skull, it would make sense to keep believing all modern humans evolved in Africa. But the similarities show that early modern humans may not have been genetically isolated from other parts of the world, like what we know today as China.
“I think gene flow could have been multidirectional, so some of the traits seen in Europe or Africa could have originated in Asia,” Athreya told New Scientist.
Okay, now the nuts and bolts.Dali has always been thought to occupy that rarified space between Homo erectus
and early modern Homo sapiens
. It was always thought to be between 200 and 250 kya, and optically-stimulated luminescence dating (a variant of thermoluminescence) places it between 258 and 267 kya. My analyses of the skull suggested that it was, in no way, shape or form, a modern human but it did not tend to cluster with the Neandertals in terms of head shape. Athreya and Wu have done an extensive multivariate analysis and conclude (from the article
, likely behind a paywall:
When just the facial skeleton is considered, Dali aligns with Middle Paleolithic H. sapiens and is clearly more derived than African or Eurasian Middle Pleistocene Homo. When just the neurocranium is considered, Dali is most similar to African and Eastern Eurasian but not Western European Middle Pleistocene Homo. When both sets of variables are considered together, Dali exhibits a unique morphology that is most closely aligned with the earliest H. sapiens from North Africa and the Levant.
These results add perspective to our previous view of as Dali a “transitional” form between Chinese H. erectus and H. sapiens. Athough no taxonomic allocation is appropriate at this time for Dali, it appears to represent a population that played a more central role in the origin of Chinese H. sapiens. Dali's affinities can be understood in the context of Wu's Continuity with Hybridization scenario and a braided-stream network model of gene flow. Specifically, we propose that Pleistocene populations in China were shaped by periods of isolated evolutionary change within local lineages at certain times, and gene flow between local lineages or between Eastern and Western Eurasia, and Africa at other times, resulting in contributions being made in different capacities to different regions at different times.
In combination with the Xuchang remains, the reanalysis of this skull suggests that, indeed, there is a long and complex interrelationship between different hominin groups that dates back some 400 thousand years. From the paper:
In the braided-stream network model, evolutionary change in China was the result of a shifting network of gene flow among distinct regional Chinese populations, as well as between Chinese and Western Eurasian populations. These were not isolated evolutionary lineages; gene flow both within China and between Eastern Eurasia, Western Eurasia and Africa was intermittent and could explain the similarities in aspects of the neurocranium found here between Dali and Western Eurasian Middle Pleistocene humans. Gene flow would best be described as a braided stream network with periods of isolated evolutionary change within a local lineage at times, and periods of gene flow between local lineages or paleo-demes at other times, resulting in contributions being made in different capacities to different regions at different times.
It is pretty clear that our simplistic models of Recent African Replacement and Multiregional Evolution need to be reworked. It is becoming more apparent that what we are looking at either a polytypic species with a huge geographical range or a syngamion of related species that intermixed regularly. The Xuchang skulls were, apparently, not unique.