Let’s Take a Moment Before We Rewrite Human History

Chinese Fossil Teeth

On Wednesday, multiple news outlets reported an exciting anthropological story. Forty-seven human teeth had been discovered in a cave in Southern China, and Chinese anthropologists had dated the bones to a stunning 80,000-120,000 BCE. This is a finding that could rewrite the dominant theory of when humans left Africa; as current theories place the great outwards migration into Europe and Asia at 50,000 to 70,000 BCE.

Stone tools suggestive of human origin and dating as old as 125,000 BCE have been found previously in India and China, but critics pointed out that other hominid species could have created them. Fossils would be needed to confirm the new migration theory.

To some, these required fossils have now been found. To others, there are still some troubling gaps that must be filled before such a radically different version of human migration can be entertained. Firstly, paleoanthropologist Russel Ciochon of the University of Iowa pointed out that the Chinese research team used a stalagmite layer to date the teeth, as the teeth themselves no longer possessed radioactive carbon. (He raised questions about this approach, specifically due to the fact that the stalagmite in question was from a different trench.) Secondly, team leader Wu Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Paleontology and Paleontology is an adherent to a fringe theory that humanity originated in China; a minority opinion with very little evidence to date, and a perspective that raises the ugly specter of ethnocentric, conclusion-driven findings.

Time will only tell if these findings hold up. It’s a compelling theory, and paleoanthropologists everywhere will likely turn an eye to India and China waiting the next great discovery. But before that next discovery is made, I’d urge science journalists everywhere to carefully consider the balance of evidence before so eagerly rewriting our own history.


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