Homo erectus in China

Evidence from Gongwangling, Northern China, sheds light on early hominin population in China.



Discoveries of archaic humans are proliferating in China. But the big question is when, and how, did the intrepid, upright, African-origin hominin Homo erectus first settle in East Asia? One big problem concerns dating, always tricky in areas without volcanic eruptions and other such events to help.


Now a detailed restudy of human remains excavated by archaeologist Woo Ju-Kang in 1963 in northern China has provided new information on the early colonisation of Asia.


The Gongwangkling site lies on the northern slopes of the Quinling Mountains of Shaanxi province in a plains environment. At the time of the original excavations, there was no way of dating the fossil remains. However, Paleomagnetic dating in 2015 indicated that they were around 1.63 million years old.


Now a team of Chinese, French, and Spanish scientists called on the latest scientific methods to examine the fossil remains anew. They combined microCT, geometric morphometry and classical morphology to examine the fragmentary upper jaw and five teeth from the fragmentary human skull found in the excavation. The skull has a long and low cranium, thick bones, and a steeply inclined face with pronounced eyebrow ridges – all characteristic of Homo erectus.


This material predates the classic H. erectus populations of China, which tend to date between 800,000 and 400,000 years ago. 'The Gongwangling site helps to plug this enormous lapse of time and it suggests that Asia might have been settled by successive populations of the species H. erectus at different moments of the Pleistocene,' said José María Bermúdez de Castro, coordinator of the research.


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Image: John Gurche's famous reconstruction of an adult female H. erectus, based on the African H. erectus fossils KNM ER 3733 and 992