Gongwangling (Chine): 1.63 million-year-old fossil may have been the first human (hominin) to inhabit China
A new analysis of fossilised Homo erectus teeth suggests a connection to older fossils from Georgia and younger specimens from China
The study could help fill a ‘huge time gap’ of more than 1 million years
Casts of Lantian Man fossils at the Shaanxi History Museum in China. Photo: Wikipedia
Scientists believe they may have pinpointed one of the first hominins to live in China in the form of a 1.63 million-year-old Homo erectus fossil nicknamed “Lantian Man” found in northwest China.
Teeth analysis of the fossil, unearthed in 1963 at Gongwangling near Xian in Shaanxi province, showed that it shared similarities with two-million-year-old fossils found in the Republic of Georgia that are the first known Homo erectus species to arrive in Asia from Africa.
Interestingly, the Gongwangling Homo erectus also had similar features to younger species found in China who lived between 400,000 and 800,000 years ago. Furthermore, there were notable differences, suggesting a degree of variability among the species.
Taken together, the findings offer an intriguing possibility that the Gongwangling Homo erectus could have been a connector between the fossils found in Georgia and the younger Homo erectus specimens discovered in China.
Photographs of teeth analysis performed on China’s ‘Lantian Man’. Photo: National Research Centre on Human Evolution
The scientists wrote that the information suggests a “temporal trend” between the older and younger specimens but acknowledged that more studies would be needed to confirm that the Homo erectus from Gongwangling was a descendant of the Georgia animals and an ancestor to the younger fossils found in China.
Regardless, the scientists said their study locks in the theory that “the Gongwangling hominin represents some of the earliest evidence of human occupation on this continent”.
José María Bermúdez de Castro, a study author and coordinator of the Paleobiology Programme at Spain’s National Research Centre on Human Evolution said: “The Gongwangling site helps to plug this enormous lapse of time and suggests that Asia might have been settled by successive populations of the Homo erectus species at different moments of the Pleistocene.”
The Pleistocene period refers to the time period between 11,700 and 2.6 million years ago.
The scientists analysed six teeth and the upper jaw using modern technology – specifically tomography and 3D imaging – to reconstruct and analyse five teeth and the upper jaw. They then compared the fossils to examples from other Homo erectus fossils, specimens from other Homo species and modern humans.
The Gongwangling fossils were in poor condition due to damage caused in the years since the animal died, but using modern technology helped the scientists find crucial information to help them “understand their relationships with other earlier and later members of the genus Homo”.
The reconstructed skull exhibits characteristics in-line with Homo erectus: a low and long cranium, thick bones to protect the brain and a notably large “twin visor” above the eyes.
Homo erectus is believed to be the direct ancestors of Homo sapiens, and they first emerged in Africa 2 million years ago before spreading across the world. They began to die out around 400,000 years ago and a study from 2020 pinpointed the Indonesian island of Java as the last place the species survived, about 108,000 years ago.