Unusual 100,000-Year-Old Human Skulls Found in China

Virtual reconstructions of the Xuchang 1 and 2 skulls, superimposed on the archeological site near Xuchang where they were discovered. Image Credit: Xiu-jie Wu

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, a variety of scruffy hominins roamed the planet, making tools, chasing down dinner, sitting around fires, and looking at the stars. Unfortunately, they didn’t leave much behind. Figuring out how and when these populations spread across the globe and intermingled with each other is a huge puzzle, one with most of the pieces missing.

That’s why scientists are excited about the discovery of two archaic human skulls in China reported in the journal Science today, March 2. These 100,000-year-old fossils have a mix of traits—and even some similarities with Neanderthals—which bolsters the idea that the precursors to modern humans were a diverse bunch who routinely interbred with one another.

Mental_floss spoke to report authors Erik Trinkaus, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and paleoanthropologist Xiu-Jie Wu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, as well as several experts in human evolution who were not involved in the current research.

The two broken skulls were discovered in the outskirts of Xuchang in central China at the Lingjing site, which was a spring for most of its history. The water consistently attracted people and animals over many millennia, and scientists have found at the site thousands bones of creatures like extinct deer and rhino relatives, as well as much more recent Bronze Age remains.

When the water table was lowered in the area in 2007, Lingjing became drier, and scientists were able to start an excavation, says Trinkaus. While digging, the researchers found the two skulls of archaic humans. They died in the Late Pleistocene, about 100,000 years ago.

“These were hunters and gatherers who, if you saw them, would look basically like people today,” Trinkaus says. “We would probably find them rather dirty and uncouth, but they were basically people.”

The skulls show that these almost-people have some similarities with early modern humans, including a large brain size and modest brow ridges. But they also have some important physical differences. Their low and broad braincase is characteristic of earlier, more primitive eastern Eurasian humans. Meanwhile, the shape of the semicircular canals (bones near the inner ear) and arrangement of the back of the skulls are similar to contemporary Neanderthals from western Eurasia.

This mosaic of physical features “suggests a pattern of regional population continuity in eastern Eurasia, combined with shared long-term trends in human biology and population connections across Eurasia,” says Wu. Those long-term trends include increasing brain size and decreasing massiveness of the skull—patterns that are also seen in humans in western Eurasia and Africa during this time period, which suggests some trends could be universal among humans, Trinkaus says.

The human-evolution experts we spoke to gave a number of reasons why the find is significant.

“It is a fascinating new discovery,” says Lynne Schepartz, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. “The presence of the Neanderthal traits is very clear and, in my opinion, unquestionable. This discovery demonstrates the diversity of eastern Asian populations in the Late Pleistocene, reflecting their roots in earlier Homo erectus populations and then increased gene flow and interaction with peoples from the West.”

Fred Smith, an anthropologist at Illinois State University, says the skulls add to two growing points of consensus in paleoanthropology: “Neanderthals had extensive evolutionary influences beyond their core area of western Eurasia, and archaic human groups routinely hybridized with each other, and with early modern humans.”

In fact, this study highlights how the once-common image of Neanderthals as an anomalous European population, distinguished by a set of regional peculiarities, is now “looking increasingly dubious,” according to Boston University anthropologist Matt Cartmill. Instead, he says, recent research suggests that some of the traits we think of as unique to Neanderthals could have been widely distributed in late archaic human populations all across Eurasia. “I am beginning to wonder how useful the concept ‘Neanderthal’ is."

Other researchers say the skulls' combination of primitive features and Neanderthal-like traits should be somewhat expected in archaic humans in East Asia from this time period. “This is exactly what the Denisovans (an Asian sister group of the Western Eurasian Neanderthals) should be,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

The authors of the paper, however, have shied away from assigning a species name or category to these archaic humans just yet. Trinkaus says there isn’t enough known about the Denisovans and that using such a category would not be helpful for understanding the messy population dynamics of archaic humans.

“It’s not the kind of thing that you can make a simple diagram of with lines on a piece of paper,” he explains. “It’s a very complex process.”

But Trinkaus is hopeful that further research at Lingjing, along with discoveries elsewhere in China and East Asia, will shed more light on what these ancestral humans were like. “In the last couple of decades there’s been a renaissance of Pleistocene archaeology and paleontology in that part of the world,” he says.

University of York
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
UK Archaeologists Have Found One of the World’s Oldest 'Crayons'
University of York
University of York

A prehistoric chunk of pigment found near an ancient lake in England may be one of the world's oldest crayons, Colossal reports. The small object made of red ochre was discovered during an archaeological excavation near Lake Flixton, a prehistoric lake that has since become a peat wetland but was once occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Though it’s hard to date the crayon itself, it was found in a layer of earth dating back to the 7th millennium BCE, according to a recent study by University of York archaeologists.

Measuring less than an inch long, the piece of pigment is sharpened at one end, and its shape indicates that it was modified by a person and used extensively as a tool, not shaped by nature. The piece "looks exactly like a crayon," study author Andy Needham of the University of York said in a press release.

A pebble of red ochre thought to be a prehistoric crayon
University of York

The fine grooves and striations on the crayon suggest that it was used as a drawing tool, and indicate that it might have been rubbed against a granular surface (like a rock). Other research has found that ochre was collected and used widely by prehistoric hunter-gatherers like the ones who lived near Lake Flixton, bolstering the theory that it was used as a tool.

The researchers also found another, pebble-shaped fragment of red ochre at a nearby site, which was scraped so heavily that it became concave, indicating that it might have been used to extract the pigment as a red powder.

"The pebble and crayon were located in an area already rich in art," Needham said. "It is possible there could have been an artistic use for these objects, perhaps for coloring animal skins or for use in decorative artwork."

[h/t Colossal]

ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
11 Inventions That Came Before the Wheel
ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The wheel is the classic example of early human invention—a quintessential innovation that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other animals. But in the scope of human history, the wheel is actually a rather young creation. Ancient Mesopotamians in modern-day Iraq became the first people to adopt the wheel only around 5500 years ago, and fairly recent cultures from other parts of the world have managed to make impressive technical accomplishments without wheels at all. (The wheel-less people of Easter Island, for example, transported and erected their towering moai statues less than 1000 years ago.) From booze to the bow and arrow, here are 11 innovations that predate the wheel.

1. BOOZE // 7000 BCE

variety of cocktails on a bar

Some archaeologists are starting to think that the world's first farmers domesticated grains to make beer, not bread. While the extent of alcohol's influence on human civilization is still debated, its antiquity is not. The oldest evidence for booze so far comes from 9000-year-old chemical traces of a fermented cocktail found on a drinking vessel in Jiahu, China.

2. CLOTHING // 150,000 BCE

A dress discovered in Egypt that is more than 5000 years old
UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

We're all born naked, but most of us are forced to wear clothes shortly afterwards. Since textiles, leathers, and furs tend to disintegrate over time, scientists have had to get creative in their quest to pinpoint the origin of clothing. The dress above, discovered in Egypt, is at least 5100 years old, but that makes it pretty recent. Clothes actually date back much further: A stone tool from a site in Germany has traces of tanned animal skin, which suggests that humans' Neanderthal cousins were wearing hides 100,000 years ago, and a study from 2011 proposed that the origin of clothes can be traced to the evolution of clothing lice, around 170,000 years ago.

3. JEWELRY // 110,000 BCE

K. Gavrilov in Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2018

Garments certainly helped humans to compensate for lost body fur and to move into colder climates, but clothes may have also been a cultural invention. As archaeological evidence of jewelry can attest, humans have also been adorning their bodies for decorative purposes for a very long time. Among the oldest surviving pieces of jewelry are 82,000-year-old pierced shells covered in red pigment from a cave in Morocco and a 130,000-year-old eagle-claw necklace found in a Neanderthal cave in Croatia. The above burial, found in Russia at a site called Sunghir, is younger, but still ancient: The man was buried more than 30,000 years ago with an elaborate array of mammoth ivory beads and arm bands, a headband of pierced fox teeth, and a pendant. (Some of the items may once have been sewn onto clothing.)

4. BOATS // 43,000–8000 BCE

Dugout boats at Kierikki Stone Age Centre

Before animal-drawn carts became a preferred mode of transport, there were rafts and boats. The 10,000-year-old Pesse canoe found in the Netherlands is thought to be the world's oldest surviving boat. But humans likely figured out how to navigate the seas for fishing and exploration even earlier. After all, people somehow crossed the seas to populate Australia, Indonesia, and islands in the Pacific at least 45,000 years ago.

5. CALENDARS // 8000 BCE

An illustration of how a 10,000-year-old
© Google Earth, Plan based on Murray et al. 2009, fig. 3, in Internet Archaeology // CC BY 3.0

Long before the gear-wheels of clocks were invented, humans used sophisticated methods to track the passage of time. One group of archaeologists has claimed that the oldest known calendar could be a 10,000-year-old series of 12 pits found in Scotland that appear to mimic the lunar cycle. You can see in the image above how the researchers imagine the system to have worked.


Utrilla et. all in Journal of Human Evolution

Just as they had to invent ways to track time, so, too, did humans have to figure out how to represent space so that they could navigate their world. Archaeologists still debate the meaning of the earliest rock art, but some of the oldest examples of possible prehistoric maps come from Abauntz Cave in Spain. The 14,000-year-old stone tablets are thought to depict mountains, rivers, and ponds, intersected with routes and hunting game-plans. You can see the top and bottom of one tablet above.

7. COOKING // 1.8 MILLION–500,000 BCE


Sometime after humans learned to control fire, they invented cooking. When you start breaking down meat and plants over an open flame, you don't have to expend as much energy chewing and digesting those foods. A conservative estimate for the rise of cooking would be 500,000 years ago, and according to a recent article in Scientific American, some researchers argue that cooking came about 1.8 million years ago by Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. They propose that this development in human evolution is what allowed our brain size to increase.


bone flute
Sascha Schuermann, AFP/Getty Images

The darkened passageways inside Germany's Hohle Fels cave get even spookier when you imagine the sounds of flutes echoing through the caverns. This is the archaeological site where the world's oldest musical instruments—43,000-year-old bone flutes made of vulture wing and mammoth tusk—have been found. Want to hear what they might have sounded like? One researcher made a replica of the vulture-wing flute, and NPR has the tune.

9. GLUE // 200,000 BCE

glue spilling from bottle onto wood table

The superglue in your toolbox and Elmer's in your kid's classroom have a long pedigree. About 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals roaming Europe used adhesive tar from birch bark to fix their stone spear tips to handles. Recent experiments suggest this type of glue was complex and difficult to make.

10. POTTERY // 18,000 BCE

archaeologist with ancient pottery
Marvin Recinos, AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of years before the invention of the wheel, people were making vessels for drinking, eating, and storage by pinching, rolling, or coiling clay into shape and baking it until hard. The oldest crude ceramic vessels come from China and date back 20,000 years. The invention of the wheel allowed for the rise of wheel-thrown pottery. Some even argue that the potter's wheel was probably the first type of wheel ever created.

11. BOW AND ARROW // 7000 BCE

rock art of hunters using bows and arrows

The remains of five bows crafted 9000 years ago were found at the Stone Age settlement of Holmegårds Mose in Denmark. But bows and arrows may have been invented far earlier by savvy hunters who wanted an efficient weapon to kill prey from a distance. Some archaeologists have argued that Sibudu Cave in South Africa contains evidence of 64,000-year-old stone-tipped arrows and bows.


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