A report published in Science magazine in March about Xuchang Man, dating back to 105,000 -- 125,000 years ago and living in Xuchang of central China's Henan Province, has aroused much public attention.
Li Zhanyang, lead author of the report and a researcher with the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, thus became famous overnight.
Since 2005, Li's team has found 45 fragments of human crania at the Xuchang site. These 45 fragments have since been pieced together in two skulls and named as Xuchang Man.
Ruins of Xuchang Man (File Photo)
According to Li's team, the Xuchang remains reveal shared features with East Asian hominids, Neanderthals and early modern humans. It proves the existence of exchanges between China's hominids and Neanderthals, as well as the continuity of human evolution in China.
In anthropogenic circles studying human origins, an African origin is the current general consensus in Europe and the United States; yet, a competing "multiregional view" is also held by many scientists in China and Australia.The research of Xuchang Man provides new evidence for the multiregional view.
The discovery of Xuchang Man
Li had led his team to excavate relics in Old Stone Age ruins in the town of Lingjing, near Xuchang, Henan Province, since April 2005.
However, they did not find any human cranial fossil until the morning of Dec. 17, 2007. A palm-sized yellow piece of rounded skull cap was unearthed at the site of Lingjing.
"Come on," shouted Li Cuiyun, a female worker in the team, who found the fossil, quickly bringing all the other workers to her side. The human cranial fossil was embedded into the muddy floor of the pit and the surface was smooth.
It was noon, and Li Zhanyang was at home when he received the call from the workers at the site. He told them not to touch the fossil and then rushed to join the team.
"I'd been waiting for this moment too long," he said, adding that the team had been scheduled to stop and rest due to the cold weather on that day.
He scoured the area very carefully after he arrived. "It's just an old friend that I haven't seen for a long time," said Li. The palm-sized human cranial fossil was broken and scattered over a buried area of two square meters. After the first find, they unearthed 15 more pieces.
The fossils were then sent to the best laboratory in Peking University to calculate the date.
Laboratory head Zhou Liping said that they tested the sediment around the fossils to calculate the date. The result of the test proved that these fragments had been buried 105,000 -- 125,000 years ago.
"This is a new evidence to support the 'multiregional view' of human origin," said Wu Xinzhi, a paleoanthropologist and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Li Zhanyang (1st R) discusses the human cranial fossil with other experts on March 7. (Photo/Beijing News)
Are Xuchang humans ancestors of East Asians?
Until May 2014, 45 human cranial fossils had been found by Li and his team around the site.
Wu Xiujie, a researcher with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, restored the fossils into two relatively complete crania with modern technology.
After using CT scanning and 3D technology to make comparisons with other human fossils found in other parts of the world, Wu said Xuchang Man bears characteristics of East Asia hominids, modern humans and Neanderthals.
One cranium has a huge brain volume of 1,800 cubic centimeters, which is larger than the 1,400 cubic centimeters of a modern human. The brain volume of the other cranium is almost the same as that of modern humans. Like the latter, the skulls have modest brow lines, lightly built cranial vaults and large brain capacity.
However, they also have the same semicircular ear canals, and enlarged section at the back of the skull, as Neanderthals.
And there are traits of East Asian hominids, too, such as a low and broad braincase that rounds onto the inferior skull.
Wu said that Xuchang Man is a new species with similarities of modern humans, East Asian hominids and Neanderthals.
Li believes that the Chinese hominids migrated to warmer European regions during an ice age and crossbred with the early Neanderthals there. During the last interglacial stage, when the climate got warmer, the ancestors of Xuchang Man came back to north China. The migration might have happened many times due to climate change.
Good living condition of Xuchang Man
Li said that the owners of the skulls were good hunters who had fashioned stone blades out of quartz.
There were also the bones of ancient horses and cattle, as well as now-extinct woolly rhinoceros and giant deer, strewn around the site.
He speculated that Xuchang Man killed the animals with stone balls and cut them with stone blades.
"Their life was good. At least they could eat meat," said Li.
Disappearance of Xuchang Man
Li found that Xuchang Man's tracks disappeared in the ruins after the latest ice age in the Quaternary Period (50,000 to 70,000 years ago).
"Xuchang Man lived in a warm age, and the warm weather will have boosted population growth," said Lyu Houyuan, an expert in the palaeoenvironment.
"I have no idea where Xuchang Man moved during that ice age, but they might have migrated due to climate change," said Li.
Therefore, it is still unclear whether there is a connection between the modern humans and Xuchang Man.
Li said that he will continue the excavation and hopes to find some human teeth in the site that will provide an opportunity for DNA testing.