Fuyan Cave in Hunan Province in China sheltered these human teeth for thousands of years.

Fuyan Cave in Hunan Province in China sheltered these human teeth for thousands of years. Photo: Xing and X-J. Wu | Reuters.

A discovery published in the journal Nature in October challenges some long held ideas about early human migration. A collection of 47 human teeth found in a cave in Daoxian County in the Hunan Province are an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 years old. That means they are the oldest remains of modern humans ever found outside of Africa.

The “Out of Africa” theory states that modern human beings evolved in Africa and then spread to the rest of the world. While that part isn’t being questioned by this new find, the timeline is, as well as the order in which humans migrated.

It has generally been assumed that humans moved to the eastern Mediterranean and then Europe before going elsewhere. But the teeth found in Fuyan Cave, which came from at least 13 individuals, put humans in southern China 30,000 to 70,000 years before they were in the Mediterranean or Europe.

Modern humans first appeared in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, and began migrating elsewhere pretty early, it seems. There are a few possible reasons why they would have gone to China before Europe. For one, moving east would have ben easier than going north, because there was an ice age going on at the time, and Europe was cold.

Another reason to stay out of Europe was provided by our cousins the Neanderthal. Although human-Neanderthal interaction is still largely a mystery, there has been some evidence that there may have been interbreeding, though it probably didn’t help save Neanderthal culture.

Eventually, they died out but before that, they had been in Europe for quite some time, several hundred thousand years by the time humans started migrating out of Africa. They were well entrenched and better adapted to the cold than we would have been.

The teeth discovered in Fuyan Cave will likely be an important piece in the puzzle of early human development, and hopefully will lead to other discoveries as well.

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Martin Ackerman is a freelance writer and current editor originally from Staten Island, NY. His university schooling focused on English education and Japanese. He has a (not so secret) passion for art history and political science. When he isn't writing or editing you can find him at sci-tech conventions, building the latest LEGO city or pampering his cat, Tea. You can follow him on Twitter @MarMackerman.