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1 September 2012
Earliest modern human fossil in Southeast Asia

A skull recovered from a cave in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos is the oldest modern human fossil found in Southeast Asia, dating to between 46,000 and 63,000 years ago. The discovery pushes back the clock on modern human migration through the region by as much as 20,000 years and indicates that ancient wanderers out of Africa inhabited diverse habitats much earlier than previously appreciated.
     The find reveals that early modern human migrants did not simply follow the coast south to the islands of Southeast Asia and Australia, as some researchers have suggested, but also traveled north into very different types of terrain. "Given its age, fossils in this vicinity could be direct ancestors of the first migrants to Australia. But it is also likely that mainland Southeast Asia was a crossroads leading to multiple migratory paths," said University of Illinois anthropologist Laura Shackelford, who led the study with anthropologist Fabrice Demeter of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
     The discovery also bolsters genetic studies that indicate that modern humans occupied that part of the world at least 60,000 years ago. "This is the first fossil evidence that supports the genetic data," Shackelford remarks.
     No other artefacts have yet been found with the skull, suggesting that the cave was not a dwelling or burial site. It is more likely that the person died outside and the body washed into the cave sometime later, Shackleford adds, a view supported by slightly younger dates for the surrounding soil.

Edited from PhysOrg (20 August 2012)

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