Scientists have found human skull pieces in Laos that are the oldest ever discovered in Asia. The finding pushes back the time frame for early human migration to Southeast Asia by up to 20,000 years. The international team’s findings are special because the warm weather of Southeast Asia makes fossil formation difficult.
The bones were found in “the Cave of the Monkeys” in Laos. The monkeys that forage in the nearby papaya and banana trees give the site its name. There were no other artifacts or sign of human activity discovered in the location. Researchers believe that the fossils most likely washed into the cave and were then covered by sediment by subsequent rainy seasons.
Using multiple dating techniques on the bones and the sediment, the researchers were able to estimate the skull fragments were between 46,000 and 63,000 years old. The shape of the bones and teeth are those of a modern human, not a Neanderthal.
The bones are the oldest modern human remains found east of the Middle East. The finding also challenges prevailing theories that the only means of migration to Asia followed the coastline of the continent, flowing from India to Indonesia and then Australia. The researchers don’t deny this means of migration, but they contend that some populations may have taken routes that went through other parts of the continent.
“Given its age, fossils in this vicinity could be direct ancestors of the first migrants to Australia,” Shackelford said in a press release.
“But it is also likely that mainland Southeast Asia was a crossroads leading to multiple migratory paths.”
“Most surprising is the fact that we found anything at all,” said paleoanthropologist Laura Lynn Shackelford of the University of Illinois, in an interview with LiveScience. “Most people didn’t think we’d find anything in these caves, or even in the region where we’re working in mainland Southeast Asia. But we’re stubborn, gone where no one’s really looked before, or at least in almost a century.”
The team had many factors working against them when they began their research. Besides the rarity of fossils in the area, the terrain of the site made the work challenging.
“It’s incredibly difficult to access the site — it’s only 150 miles (240 kilometers) from the capital, but it takes us two days to drive there because of the rough terrain,” Shackelford said. “We have to hike up the side of a cliff, do a bit of rock-climbing to get to the mouth of the cave, and then going in, we have to go 60 meters (200 ft) down a slope of wet clay. We also have to carry a generator and lights with us to see in the cave. We have to push pigs out of the way to get through the jungle — there are just pigs wandering around there.”
“Every bit of clay has to be removed and taken back up by hand, trowel and bucket, so work is incredibly slow. We only go in the dry season in the winter, so we don’t really have to deal with insects and snakes — well, we did have snakes fall into the pit while excavating. And in the cave, we’ve had more than our fair share of spiders and bats.”
The team is now trying to extract DNA from the bones to see how it may relate to DNA in other bone fragments discovered in Asia.
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